Articles on Humor
Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D
Humor was the last thing on Sharon's mind. She had recently undergone a double mastectomy, and was trying to get used to her prosthetic breasts. As usual, she had gotten up, put the coffee on, and went out to get the morning paper. But when she bent over to get the paper, one of her breasts popped out, and fell to the porch. Her dog, always on the lookout for a new toy, grabbed it and ran out into the yard for a game of "catch me if you can." Sharon ran after him, chasing him back and forth across the yard, shouting, "You let go of my breast! Come back here with my breast!"
Realizing what the neighbors must be thinking, she suddenly stopped and looked around. No witnesses. Then it hit her-the silliness of the whole situation-and she began to laugh. She convulsed with laughter for what seemed like several minutes, laughing so hard that tears were streaming from her eyes. When she finally stopped, she realized that it was the first time she had laughed since her surgery. And it felt great! She determined that from that point on, she would never again be without humor and laughter in her life-no matter how tough the days.
On June 2, 1996, I found myself in Binghamton, NY doing a program for cancer survivors and their families on National Cancer Survivors Day. A woman came up to me after the program and told me about her struggle against brain cancer during the previous two years, and that her doctors were continually amazed at how well she was doing. While some who were close to her seemed to be preparing for her death, she was very full of life and planning her future. She attributed her success to the fact that she had a good sense of humor, and always tried to find a light side of things- even on the toughest days.
My friends, who know I earn a living by talking to people about how humor helps cope with life stress-while contributing to physical health and wellness at the same time-are always puzzled when I tell them I'm speaking to cancer survivors about humor. "My God!" they say, "How can you laugh at cancer? There's nothing funny about getting cancer." And, of course, they're right. There's never anything funny about the fact that one has cancer. But learning to find a light side of things that happen as a result of your cancer, and keeping your sense of humor about the everyday things that have nothing to do with cancer, give you a powerful tool in coping with all the tough days you face. Your sense of humor also helps bring back some joy into your life.
There's no evidence that humor and laughter add years to your life, but they certainly add life to your years. The reason so many hospitals provide programs on humor for their Cancer Survivors Day program is that shared laughter reminds us better than any other experience that the day is really devoted to a Celebration of Life!
After virtually every program, someone comes up to me and says, "You know, what you said is so true. If it hadn't been for my sense of humor, I would never have gotten through the treatments, let alone the disease." They note that finding a light side of things was essential to maintaining hope and determination to fight the disease. In the March/April, 1996, issue of Coping, Steven Barish noted how important humor and a positive attitude were in his own recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gilda Radner (Saturday Night Live) and Michael Landon (Bonanza ) were models for us all as they showed the power of humor and laughter to boost the quality of life while battling cancer.
Of course, you don't want to use humor to deny the reality of the disease. You expect to go through a period of shock and denial when you receive your diagnosis. If you use a lot of humor during this early period after getting the news, chances you're probably not using it in a healthy manner. One woman, upon learning about her own cancer, spent the next couple of weeks telling people, "The bad news is, I have cancer. The good news is, I'm biodegradable." The constant joking, in her case, was probably a sign that she was refusing to come to grips with the reality of her disease.
Once you've reached the stage of acceptance, and are ready to move on and battle the disease as effectively as you can, humor is a powerful tool to help you cope on a day-to-day basis. If you haven't yet learned this lesson, perhaps a little information on the latest exciting research on the coping and health benefits resulting from humor will give you the incentive you need to make the effort to build more humor into your life.
Humor provides a sense of control over the stress that goes along with battling cancer by giving you more control over your daily mood. It helps you sustain an upbeat, optimistic frame of mind, even on the bad days. This more positive emotional state helps give you the resilience you need to cope with the next problem thrown your way. A good belly laugh also boosts your energy level on the days when you don't want to even get out of bed. This is especially important, since most survivors experience fatigue as a result of their cancer treatment. Finally, humor and laughter provide a means of "letting go" of the anger and anxiety that build up on your worst days.
Laughter also reduces muscle tension. This muscle relaxation, and the easing of psychological tension that accompanies it, is the main goal of all stress management techniques, and clearly accounts for much of the stress-reducing power of humor.
We have known for years that stress weakens the immune system. Humor and laughter, on the other hand, have been shown to strengthen the immune system. This includes increased numbers of, and activity of, Natural Killer cells. These cells have the role of seeking out and destroying tumor cells. There is no evidence that humor is capable of reversing any disease, but it does help assure that your body's natural health and healing systems are fully engaged in the battle.
Laughter has been shown to lower the level of stress hormones (epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone) in the blood, (temporarily) lower blood pressure, and reduce pain. As Groucho Marx put it, "A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast." Laughter also provides an excellent source of cardiac exercise-especially important for senior citizens or non-ambulatory patients-and triggers a peculiar breathing pattern that offers significant respiratory benefits. It lowers the amount of residual air in the lungs, replacing it with oxygen-rich air. This reduces the level of water vapor and carbon dioxide in the lungs, thereby reducing the risk of pulmonary infection.
There is no doubt that humor helps you sustain a more positive, optimistic daily attitude. It nurtures hope and determination to overcome your cancer. Dr. Bernie Siegel has been reminding us for years that emotional factors can play an important role in battling disease, and a growing body of evidence from the new field of medical research called "psychoneuroimmunology" confirms this view. By sustaining a more positive mood, and reducing the amount of time spent in a state of anger, anxiety, or depression, you are playing an active role in mobilizing your body's own health and healing resources. Your emotional state begins working for your health, rather than against it.
So you have every reason to humor your tumor. It builds some joy into your life during a period when it seems like all you know is anxiety, anger, depression, and pain. It gives you an energy boost on the days when you have none. And it helps assure your body is fully committed to battling your disease.
Remember, "They who laugh, last."
Candace Pert, one of the most respected researchers in the area of mind/body medicine, noted in Bill Moyers' Healing and the Mind television series that emotions, registered and stored in the body in the form of chemical messages are the best candidates for the key to the health connection between mind and body. It is through the emotions you experience in connection with your thoughts and daily attitudes--actually, through the neurochemical changes that accompany these emotions that your mind acquires the power to influence whether you get sick or remain well.
The key, according to Pert, is found in complex molecules called neuropeptides. "A peptide is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. There are twenty-three different amino acids. Peptides are amino acids strung together very much like pearls strung along in a necklace." Peptides are found throughout the body, including the brain and immune system. The brain contains about 60 different neuropeptides, including endorphins. Neuropeptides are the means by which all cells in the body communicate with each other. This includes brain-to-brain messages, brain-to-body messages, body-to-body messages, and body-to-brain messages.
Individual cells, including brain cells, immune cells, and other body cells, have receptor sites that receive neuropeptides. The kinds of neuropeptides available to cells are constantly changing, reflecting variations in your emotions throughout the day. The exact combinations of neuropeptides released during different emotional states has not yet been determined.
The kind and number of emotion-linked neuropeptides available at receptor sites of cells influence your probability of staying well or getting sick. "Viruses use these same receptors to enter into a cell, and depending on how much of the natural peptide for that receptor is around, the virus will have an easier or harder time getting into the cell. So our emotional state will affect whether we'll get sick from the same loading dose of a virus."
This kind of conclusion from a researcher at the cutting edge of research on the mind/body connection should give you all the motivation you need to undertake the 8-Step Humor Development Training Program. Your sense of humor helps assure that these chemical messages are working for you, not against you. "The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion. And that says to me that . . . we'd better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health." (Candace Pert)
It was noted earlier that preliminary research suggests that humor/laughter stimulates the production of helper T-cells, the cells attacked by the AIDS virus. If humor was to help the body battle AIDS (there is presently no evidence that it does--or does not), it probably wouldn't be as a mere result of the production of more helper T-cells, since there would be every reason to expect these new cells to also be invaded by the virus. Rather, it would probably be due to the neuropeptides produced by the positive emotional state that goes along with humor and laughter.
Along these lines, Pert has noted that "The AIDS virus uses a receptor that is normally used by a neuropeptide. So whether an AIDS virus will be able to enter a cell or not depends on how much of this natural peptide is around, which . . . would be a function of what state of emotional expression the organism is in."
"This I believe to be the chemical function of humor: to change the character of our thought." (Lin Yutang)
This research will not be exhaustively reviewed here, but some of the major studies will be presented to show you that there is no longer any doubt that your daily mood or frame of mind makes a significant contribution to your health--especially when the same mood or emotional state persists day after day, year after year. Anything you can do to sustain a more positive, upbeat frame of mind in dealing with the daily hassles and problems in your life contributes to your physical health at the same time that it helps you cope with stress and be more effective on the job.
Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health, instead of working against it. Humor also helps you maintain a healthy lifestyle in general, a practice that is increasingly being recommended by health care professionals as the country shifts toward an emphasis on preventive medicine.