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Practice Humor for Health and Wellbeing

O. Carl Simonton, MD, founder of Simonton Cancer Center

Learn to view thoughts as nothing but passing brain phenomena.

For those of us living with chronic health problems, it’s important not to take ourselves and our medical situation too seriously. Worrying or agonizing about our health challenges isn’t helpful—in fact it’s deleterious to our health—so it’s highly beneficial to learn to see the humor in the normal daily situations in which we find ourselves. To do that, we need to learn to take our thoughts more lightly. The ability to do this hinges on being able to see our thoughts as nothing but passing brain phenomena.

In the Words of a Flustered Researcher . . .

At a 1998 professional conference I attended, Dr. Joe Kamiya, a pioneer psychophysiology researcher who was then probably in his late seventies, did a PowerPoint presentation before a large audience. PowerPoint technology at that time posed a challenge even for younger presenters. At a certain point in his talk, the program on his laptop malfunctioned. He gasped at first, but then quickly chuckled, remarking to the audience, “You have to have a sense of humor about these things or you will surely die prematurely.” Dr. Kamiya remained calm, accepting the reality of the computer malfunction. He could see that his thoughts about the consequences of a malfunctioning PowerPoint program were just that—nothing but thoughts—and he still presents at conferences every year.

Humor has great healing properties, laughing especially so. In my three-year training at the Simonton Cancer Center, I noticed that Dr. Simonton and his colleague Dr. Mariusz Wirga routinely cultivated the ability to look for the funny things in life. Whenever something failed to go as planned during one of the residential cancer retreats, they remained relaxed and accepting of it and automatically looked for the humor in the situation. They didn’t have the burden of taking themselves too seriously.

University of California-Berkeley research psychologists Dacher Keltner and George Bonanno  have performed studies examining the effects of laughter on health. Their conclusions: “Laughter facilitates the adaptive response to stress by increasing the psychological distance from distress and by enhancing social relations.”

Public health researchers Lee Berk and Stanley Tan at Loma Linda School of Medicine and Public Health found that laughter reduces stress hormones, increases immune cell counts, improves immune function tests, and increases beta-endorphins as well as human growth hormone. They also found that even the anticipation of laughter improved regulation of neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, and neuroendocrine hormones.

It’s probably not surprising to anyone who has ever laughed that laughter lowers stress hormones. In fact, just the simple expectation of laughter elevates various beneficial hormones.  The aforementioned researchers found that the men who merely anticipated watching one of their favorite funny videos tested 27 percent higher in beta-endorphin, and tested 87 percent higher in human growth hormone than the control group.  The amazing thing is that these improvements in physiological functioning occurred merely through recollecting the pleasurable experience of laughter and looking forward to laughing again.

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