Imagine that scientists discovered a drug that, among other effects, reduces stress, improves circulation, boosts immunity and eases pain.
Now suppose that this drug were available for free, without a doctor's prescription and with none of the usual precautions that accompany ads for prescription drugs.
How about present-day reality? There's no need for a trip to the pharmacy. Just watch your favorite comedy, share a joke with a friend, read a cartoon strip you enjoy or watch a kitten at play.
In short, find ways to laugh.
Yes, the generic name for this drug is laughter. And it was the topic of a recent symposium: "Humor, Heart, and Hope: Laughter Through the Cancer Journey," held at Penn Medicine's Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.
This free program grew out of a partnership with the Heartland Media Foundation, the Humor Project — an effort to help people tap into their well-being and creativity through laughter — and the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia.
The program — also presented in California and in Atlanta –is part of a nationwide effort to promote laughter and humor as a way to heal and empower. Besides the symposia, it includes humor workshops and a documentary film.
Offering the lighter side here were Joel Goodman, founder of the Humor Project; Margie Ingram, its co-director and a life coach; Leslie Gibson, a cancer survivor and hospice nurse who uses humor to assist patients in their cancer journey; and Michael Pritchard, a partner in Heartland Media as well as a comedian, motivational speaker and probation officer who has appeared extensively on TV shows.
For Goodman, the inspiration to initiate the Humor Project grew from a personal experience. His father had developed an aneurysm and needed surgery. Even though his dad was under the care of renowned cardiac surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey, it was a stressful time for the family. However, it was a van driver who provided much needed stress relief.
Goodman recalls, "The proverbial funny thing happened on the way to the hospital. My Mom and I were staying in a nearby hotel that provided a shuttle van to the hospital. Alvin, the driver, had the wonderful ability to joke, tease, and invite laughter from his passengers who were wrapped in fear.
"Alvin's gentle, playful, spontaneous, childlike sense of humor helped us come to our senses — of humor."
Because of Alvin and what Goodman called the "Good Humor Truck," "we were in a much better position to help my Dad laugh off the tension of the upcoming operation," and this "ability to keep ourselves 'in stitches,' " Goodman says, "played a vital part in Dad's successful post-op recovery."
Having witnessed the power of humor in his father's recovery, Goodman sought a way to "invite and apply humor intentionally — without killing it in the process."
And so, in 1977, the Humor Project, Inc., was born, "the first organization in the world," says Goodman, "to focus full-time on the positive power of humor."
Both science and personal accounts show some serious benefits from laughter. Two years after Goodman founded the Humor Project, Norman Cousins' best-selling book,Anatomy of an Illness, was published. It was Cousins' story of his recovery from a potentially crippling, incurable illness through improved diet and nutrition but chiefly through laughter.
Cousins supplemented medicine with comic films and books –and, although at first his health hung in the balance, he fully recovered. Cousins believed that humor was not a cure-all, nor was it a substitute for good, competent, evidence-based clinical care–but that it could be a powerful ally in the healing process.
The experiences of Goodman's father and of Cousins are not unique. The benefits of laughter have been widely discussed in medical literature, including the Humor Project's Dr. David Weiland, vice president of medical affairs at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
But perhaps the best demonstration of how laughter can benefit us occurs when we indulge in it. The speakers at the "Humor, Heart and Hope" Symposium certainly helped this process along, sharing personal stories of ways in which they learned to laugh in the face of heartbreaking situations.
Goodman invited participants to turn to a neighbor and tell a joke. Besides sharing his experience with his father's illness, he offered a variety of humor resources: pithy sayings such as "Levity defies gravity" or "Don't rush me — I'm making mistakes as fast as I can"; props such as Smiles-on-a-Stick; and advice to look for humor for five minutes a day.
Goodman closed by handing out cards that read "OPPORTUNITY IS N O W H E R E," and encouraged audience members to perceive it not as "Opportunity is nowhere," but as "Opportunity is now here."
Margie Ingram used the acronym HOPE to share coping strategies with the audience. Healthy lifestyle; Others (remembering and thanking support people, while giving support to those who need it); Positive possibilities in life situations; and Energize with humor (learn to laugh at yourself).
As life coach Ingram explains, she helps clients "look for what they see that makes them laugh" — or at least smile — "during the course of their everyday lives. There are exercises that they do to help broaden their view to see more humor in the world around them."
Leslie Gibson shared her cancer journey — and as difficult as it is to view cancer with any humor, especially on first getting a diagnosis, Gibson made a convincing case for doing just that.
To begin, she cited the physiological benefits of laughing. It leads to deep breathing, which oxygenates the blood, fostering improvement in blood pressure and heart health.
It's even good for the brain: Gibson cited work with Alzheimer's patients who responded to laughter and noted that the part of the brain that responded to such popular stimulants as coffee, chocolate and sex also responded to laughter.
Early in life, Gibson had to learn the value of laughter. Teased as a child, she would hide in a shoe repair shop, whose owner took her under his wing and encouraged her to get people to laugh with her.
"I became the class clown," she said, and her sense of humor again became a crucial survival tool when dealing with cancer–such as buying glow-in-the-dark hairspray after having to swallow a radioactive capsule as part of her treatment. In general, she urges people to "find magic in everything."
In working with her hospice patients, her goal is to help her patients find that laughter and magic. In an email, she recalled the first patient with whom she used humor therapy — "a 92-year-old blind woman" with colon cancer and "no living family members."
"After assessing her age," Gibson explained, "I brought over an audio cassette" featuring the skits of famed married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen.
"Her face lit up as she laughed out loud," hearing the comedians' "old radio show. Fear of strangers melted away. In that moment, I recognized the therapeutic value of laughter as a treatment option!"
Michael Pritchard brought his brand of storytelling and life wisdom to the proceedings, sharing and making light of his upbringing — he was from a family of 13, growing up in the 1950s with a strict World War II veteran as his father.
Yet what he remembers clearly is the laughter his family shared — and that he passed on to others.
Like Gibson, he recalls being a class clown– a quality that was less appreciated when he was a seminary student, and so he did not become a priest. But through Heartland Media documentaries, he has passed on quite a bit of what he has learned of humor's healing potential.
The collaboration with the Humor Project and the Cancer Support Community focuses on those dealing with cancer. The three organizations worked together to "bring levity, laughter and humor with an empowering message to people touched by cancer across the U.S. through educational programs and materials and a documentary film about the power of humor," according to the CSC website.
This effort to bring laughter is ongoing at CSC. "We offer an annual Jokefest — a social event for members to tell jokes and funny stories with prizes and refreshments, and we provide classes in Laughter Yoga from time to time," says Kathleen Coyne, CSC's Philadelphia program director.
As the symposium program summed up its mantra: "He/she who laughs lasts."