Laughter is a biological reaction humans have to humorous moments and events. It is an outward expression of inner amusement. Children laugh about 300 times a day while adults laugh only 17 times. Smiling is a mild and silent form of laughter.
Laughter eases the mind, defuses tension among people and has positive physiological effects on patients. During your medical visits you may be introduced to the therapeutic use of laughter, humor and tears to reduce stress.
It is important that laughter and humor should continue to be part of daily life even during the hardest time for patients, families and staff.
Health Benefits Attributed to Humor and Laughter
- Individuals who laugh on a regular basis have a lower standing blood pressure than the average person
- The neuroendocrine hormones epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and growth hormone are reduced
- Improved immune function through increase in infection-fighting antibodies
- Muscle relaxation occurs (first all muscles relax that are not involved in laughing and then when laughter stops the muscles involved in laughter also relaxes)
- Increased pain tolerance
- Enhances learning by stimulating both sides of the brain
- Lowers stress, dissolves anger and bring people together especially in difficult times
- Frequent belly laughter results in a cleansing effect for the lungs similar to deep breathing
The Healing Power of Laughter and Tears
LAUGH YOUR WAY TO HEALTH
It is now widely accepted among medical circles that laughter cures and that one who laughs lives longer.
A California hospital is providing a “living-room” for their patients to play. In several retirement homes in California, elderly residents take regular “humor medicine”, they read funny books, poems, cartoons, and they watch movies and performances by stand-up comedians. Associations like “The Humor Project” directed by Joel Goodman give stress management workshops all around the country. Laughter can relieve stress, help recover from disease and can also prevent it.
Laughter has been said to have effects similar to physical exercise. It is a “stationary jogging” as Fry says. “When you laugh, your chest, thorax and abdominal muscles, as well as your diaphragm, heart lungs and possibly your liver contract. A belly laugh can make your systolic blood pressure soar from an average of 120 to a hypertensive 200, and it can double your pulse rate from 60 to 120 beats per minute. Laughing also pumps extra adrenalin into your blood stream. After a good laugh all systems return to normal or even a little below normal, resulting in less stress, hypertension and muscle tension headaches, as well as an all around good feeling.
Laughter can also cure. That was the spectacular discovery of Norman Cousins. In 1964 he was diagnosed as suffering from a degenerative disease of the conjunctive tissue. Orthodox medicine gave him a 1 in 500 chance for survival. He left the hospital, booked a hotel room and took massive amounts of vitamin C and watched funny movies. After each laughing episode he experienced two hours of painless sleep. Sedimentation rates taken before and after the session, showed a drop of at least 5 points. (This test measures signs of inflammation in the body, a major characteristic of Cousin’s Illness). “The drop by itself was not substantial but it held and was cumulative,” says Cousins in his book “Anatomy of an Illness”.
His “miraculous” recovery inspired scientists to research the chemistry of laughter.
It was recently discovered that a good belly laugh prompts the brain to block the manufacture of immune suppressors such as cortisone or that it speeds up production of immune enhancers such as beta-endorphins. (Endorphins are the body’s natural painkiller.) That would explain why laughing suppresses pain. It also shows that the heart, the brain and the immune system work as one unit; a feeling of joy or happiness combined with laughter creates a chemical response in the brain. Therefore, it makes sense to get AIDS and cancer patients to laugh as is the case today in several hospitals throughout the country. Carolina Health and Humor association directed by Hamilton, works with cancer patients at the Duke University Medical Center. In Houston Texas, a room is devoted to help patients counteract the negative emotions that go with their illness. In Albany, New York, the AIDS council of Northeastern New York has recently received a grant to explore ways that humor can help AIDS patients.
IS JOY AND PLAY ENOUGH MEANING TO LIFE?
Seriousness, leading to depression in its pathological form, is every adult’s disease in our society: as a child grows older his natural spontaneous wild energy is suppressed and he is being conditioned to behave as a quiet person in control of himself. A child is never bored, always creative with his energy, playing and having fun. Laughing goes with an uplifting energy, a feeling of aliveness and well being, and a presence in the moment, an explosion, a release, and a pleasurable sensation in the body. This feeling of having fun and enjoying oneself enhances the will to live and erase any question about the meaning of life. It is an answer in itself.
It is this feeling of playfulness that Dr. Weinstein’s Play-fair Inc., association tries to recreate with children games reviewed for non-competitiveness.
Seriousness identifies us with our ego. Humor gives us detachment. In his book “Handbook of Humor and Psychotherapy” Mindess describes the freeing from our own conforming stabilizing systems of self-control that have distanced us from our authentic, spontaneous self.” Detachment is also what Annette Goodheart has been teaching in her therapeutic work for over 20 years as the title of her book and thesis indicates: ” How to laugh about everything in your life that isn’t really funny.”
Raymond Moody MD, author of “Laugh after Laugh the Healing Power of Humor” refers to a cosmic sense of humor. “A person with a cosmic sense of humor is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. Such a person has the ability to perceive life comically without loosing any love or respect for himself or humanity in general.”
Olson a psychologist from Reisterston, Maryland describes different levels of humor (Prevention, April 1981).
“There are three levels of humor, sarcasm is one, but that’s destructive; the second a good pun that gives you a twist of expectancy has positive qualities. And so does the third level, cosmic humor, which is an appreciation of the paradoxes and absurdities of life. The person who has this level of humor, is the more likely to be flexible and able to take in stride what life dishes out. I like level three the best for my patients.”
Maybe a hearty laughter has the mysterious power to connect us with the inner and outer life source, making us part of the whole. Its quality would be similar to sexual orgasm: both take us out of our ego, into the here and now, giving us a short experience of ecstasy. Maybe ecstasy is the state of consciousness that creates laughter in the legendary laughing Buddha’s. They must glance at polar opposites at once and laugh at the cosmic joke that is life.
This ancient story illustrates the different paths possible. Heraclites the philosopher had fallen into a deep depression because of his serious contemplation of the sad lot of humanity. “He wept and railed against heaven for the foolishness, pain and insanity of his fellow human beings. Democritus, on the other hand in response to similar thoughts, laughed at humanity’s foolishness, useless pain and general insanity. The people of his native town of Abdera thought he was mad and sending emissaries to Hippocrates, pleaded that the famous physician not delay in curing their townsman” counts Robert Burton.
Hippocrates comes and during the visit, compliments Democritus for his happiness and leisure, commenting he doesn’t have time himself being busy with all worldly affairs. “At this speech, Democritus profusely laughed,” continues the story. Hippocrates asked the reason why he laughed, he told him: “At the vanities and the fopperies of the time to see men so empty of all virtuous actions, to hunt so far after gold, having no end in ambition…When men live in peace, they covet war, detesting quietness…When they are poor and needy they seek riches, and when they have them, they do not enjoy them, but hide them underground, or else wastefully spend them… Others commend courage and strength in wars, and let themselves be conquered by lust and avarice… And now, methinks, O most worthy Hippocrates you should not reprehend my laughing, perceiving so many fooleries in men.”
When the villagers inquired of Hippocrates what he thought about him he said that the world had not a wiser, a more learned, a more honest man, and they were much deceived to say that he was mad.
THE CLEANSING VIRTUE OF TEARS
The sad philosopher and the fool are within all us and we are also the neutral point in between those extremes watching it all happen. What we have said for laughter could be said for tears. They differ in that they are polar opposites; tears give us depth where laughter gives us lightness, but they are very similar in their physiology and function.
Sobs give a shake to the diaphragm, the breathing goes deeper, and the whole upper part of the body gets a work-out. Many times after a good cry the whole body feels more relaxed and the mind feels at peace.
Crying has the function to release us from accumulated emotional stress and keeps us open to the experience of joy. Without crying we start suffering. It can have a role in keeping us healthy. As mentioned in “Self” June 1981, “If crying can relieve stress, then it may be that repressing tears makes one more susceptible to many of the major stress related diseases, ranging from asthma to heart disease, to ulcers.”
William Frey, author of “Crying the Mystery of Tears” and director of the Dry Eye and Tear Research Center at Saint-Paul Ramsey Medical Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has proven scientifically that the chemical composition of emotional tears differed from tears caused by the irritation of the eye by onion vapors. Emotional tears have a 24% higher protein content. Whether the increased protein content of emotional tears is in fact a by-product of stress in our system is a subject for further research. He suggests “Weeping, like other excretory processes, removes toxic substances from the body and that tears have a precise role in this process. Emotional stress alters the chemical balance of the human body and conversely, changes in the chemical balance can effect an emotional change. From a biochemical viewpoint, people who are sad or depressed could be suffering from a chemical imbalance, an altered homeostasis that is restored, at least partially, by the excretion of certain substances in tears. I agree with Darwin that emotional weeping helps relieve suffering, but I submit that the excretion of tears is central not incidental, to the relieve mechanism.”
THE MYSTIC ROSE LAUGHTER AND TEARS MEDITATIVE THERAPY
In our clinic we may use a modification of the mystic rose laughter and tears meditative therapy. We adapted this 3 week long meditation to fit our programs and we introduced a one hour and a half group or individual session.
The regular therapeutic meditation practiced at Osho University involves 3 hours a day of laughing for seven straight days. This is followed by three hours a day of crying for seven days, which is then followed by three hours a day of Vipassana meditation.
The instructions are to have as little interactions possible and to find one’s own source of laughter and tears. As in Vipassana meditation, the process consists in watching what is happening; there is no talk or trying to understand. The group leader is on the same level as the participants: if he reaches out to somebody it has to be with his own laughter and tears.
I participated in the meditation and was struck by its powerful cleansing effects. I conducted 15 in-depth interviews among the participants and in the analysis the following themes appeared most often:
The process was followed by:
- A much deeper relaxation
- More vulnerability
- More spontaneity
- More awareness
- More playfulness, less seriousness
- More authenticity
- One person who had asthma was cured
In the description of the process, a particular recurrent theme attracted my attention: the crying was releasing pictures of war, fields, burning of the witches, suffering of the planet. It was like tears shed in a meditative way, were giving access to the collective unconscious or to past life memories.
This hypothesis, that there is a collective unconscious, which can be accessed and amplified through meditation, has been suggested by Greg Dubs in “Common boundaries between Spirituality and Psychotherapy.” The Mystic Rose Meditation observations seem to confirm it. They also show that cathartic therapy and meditations can be integrated to reach deeper and more effective results.
The Physiology of the Laughter and Tears Meditative Therapy
- In particular an electroencephalogram should be taken to control whether in the crying period the brain is showing alpha and theta waves, as is the case in a traditional meditation like Vipassana.
- Are those specific effects of past life memories due to the fact that the participants studied were experienced meditators, or are those effects also happening with non-experienced meditators?
- If laughing and crying strengthen the will to live and the immune system, what would be the result of its continuous use with cancer and AIDS patients?
- Would it help cure chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension?
- What would be its effect on depressed patients?