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Healing with Laughter

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 113 - July 2005

"If we may believe our logicians, man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter," wrote Joseph Addison in the 18th century. I am not sure he was right, because I swear that the horse that threw me, aged ten, onto a bale of hay did turn round to look at me – and laughed. (I still remember his teeth, the shape and size of piano keys.) Also, it's hard to watch playful puppies or monkeys without noticing their sense of fun. However, going along with Addison, humans are probably the only creatures for whom laughter is the greatest and most necessary free spice of life. So is a sense of humour in its many varieties; some of them universal, others only comprehensible to a limited public. For instance, the world-beating English sense of humour often bewilders our French neighbours, whose finely honed wit belongs to a totally different category. The witty person laughs at others; the one blessed with a sense of humour is able to laugh at him- or herself, which is much harder. We need self-confidence tempered with humility to acknowledge how foolish it is to take ourselves too seriously, considering our bumbling progress through life. Once we've seen that, we become more tolerant towards others, too. Humour excludes pomposity and softens conflict. People who are able to laugh together rarely fight. Best of all, laughter is contagious and has no harmful side-effects.

The best symbol of innocent world-shaking laughter is the Chinese Laughing Buddha, a fat, bald, half-naked, laughing porcelain figure, worlds away from the austere majesty of the classic meditating Buddha statue. The Laughing Buddha is obviously hugely amused. Perhaps he's solved the mystery of the Universe and finds it funny, or maybe he chuckles over the cosmic paradox of the immortal human spirit being imprisoned in a mortal body. At a mundane level this china figure is supposed to bring good luck.

Modern research confirms the old belief that laughter is the best medicine: laughter therapy is used in several American hospitals, and in India people going to work can drop in to so-called laughter clubs for a smiling start to the day. Laughter is good for mind and body. It reduces high blood pressure, neutralizes the effect of stress hormones, boosts the production of the white blood cells that fight infection and stimulates endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Furthermore, a good big belly laugh exercises the solar plexus, which in turn increases the intake of oxygen.

The healing power of laughter is dramatically demonstrated in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, by the late Norman Cousins, famous American journalist and editor. Over the past 25 years this bestseller has appeared in many editions and several languages, spreading the message that mind and laughter are able to heal the body. And Cousins needed a near-miraculous healing: after a stressful foreign trip he developed severe pain all over his body, followed by progressive paralysis. In hospital, diagnosed with severe ankylosing spondylitis, all he received were analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs; in other words, symptomatic treatment with no hope of a cure. Supported by his GP, Cousins decided to try another way. He recalled that during his exhausting trip he had also been exposed to severe atmospheric pollution; the two together added up to body-mind poisoning, so both had to be tackled.

Cousins moved from the hospital to a hotel, employed a nurse, bought a projector and a multitude of rip-roaring comedy films. His instinct proved right. After laughing like mad for ten minutes, he was able to enjoy two hours of pain-free sleep. On waking up he watched another burlesque, or asked his nurse to read to him from the best of American humorous writings, causing further roars of laughter. Meanwhile, his GP treated him with extra-high doses of Vitamin C. Within days his temperature returned to normal, his terrifyingly fast pulse slowed down; after eight days he was once again able to move his paralysed thumb. It took him years to recover fully, but during that time he wrote his epoch-making book, which still has a great deal to teach us.

Of course the healing power of humour and laughter works in less dramatic cases, too. Laughter is always a blessing and a remedy. Small children laugh with their entire being. As adults we aren't quite as spontaneous, yet we have plenty to laugh about, not at, but with, others. The greatest treasure is the laughter that survives into old age: it compensates for the losses inflicted by time, it puts the irksome small problems of everyday life into perspective and protects against the discontented, bitter chewing over of past grievances. It can even make loneliness easier to bear. If at any age we are able to laugh and contemplate our imperfect and lovely world through the gently distorting lens of humour, we remain in touch with life itself.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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