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Laughter: A Priceless Prescription

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When Norman Cousins was editor of the Saturday Review, he became seriously ill with a brain tumou.

When Norman Cousins was editor of the Saturday Review, he became seriously ill with a brain tumour. He checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room, where he stocked up on humorous books and funny videos such as films by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. It didn't take him long to make the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of good old belly laughter resulted in two hours of pain-free, healing sleep. It was his marathon laugh sessions and growing sense of humour that helped Cousins beat the odds and defeat the deadly disease, he recounts in his book, Anatomy of an Illness.

Independent studies have indeed found that the immune systems of test subjects strengthened dramatically after viewing funny videos and remained stable even during more serious films afterwards, according to Stuart M. Berger, MD, author of The Immune Power Diet and Forever Young. Because of the growing evidence showing that laughter may be among our simplest, and possibly most powerful, health boosters, more health professionals are prescribing laughter as medicine.

"Make a silliness check at 4:30 each afternoon," suggests Steve Allen Jr, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the State University of New York Health Science Center and son of comedian Steve Allen.

Another proponent of the importance of laughter is psychiatrist William F. Fry, MD, associate clinical professor emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine. "When you laugh, your body responds," he explains. "You flex, then relax 15 facial muscles plus dozens of others all over your body. Your pulse and respiration increase briefly, oxygenating your blood. And your brain experiences a decrease in pain production due to the creation of pleasure-giving endorphins."

Psychotherapist Joyce Anisman-Saltman teaches executives, teachers and others to take responsibility for putting more laughter in their lives. An assistant professor of special education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, she emphasizes that laughter brings on a whole host of beneficial changes, from painkilling endorphins for drug-free relief to breaking the cycle of psychological negativity that we tend to fall into at times.

Not surprisingly, the good news about laughter is spreading. In Germany, seminars and workshops on laughing teach no-nonsense, serious-minded executives and politicians the importance of learning to laugh more freely, more often. Humour is a survival skill that relieves tension, keeping us fluid and flexible instead of allowing us to become rigid and breakable in the face of change.

Laughter is also a social activity. Research has shown that in the company of other people, you laugh 30 times more than when you're alone. And the bigger the group, the more laughter. After all, why take yourself so seriously? Learn to laugh at yourself and your challenges. Spending time with people who enjoy a good laugh will help you get rid of some of the anxieties that can make you crabby.

A session of hearty laughter tones your cardiovascular system, exercises the lungs and releases muscle tension. In addition, people who laugh readily and view life with a healthy sense of humour usually find stressful events less disturbing and easier to deal with.

Psychologists also tell us that individuals who laugh easily and frequently have better self-esteem and a much more positive outlook on life in general.

So keep laughing. It could be the best prescription you've had for a while. And keep reminding yourself of this old eastern proverb: "When it comes to the health of the people, I would rather a troupe of clowns enter the city than a caravan loaded with all the drugs of Egypt."

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