History of humor and health

Stress less with laughter. Research shows that laughter may be the best medicine.

Michigan State University Extension works to promote health through educational programs and delivering online articles. Good health is more than just physical; it is intricately tied to social and emotional health. One program MSU Extension offers, RELAX: Alternatives to Anger helps people to become more aware of strong emotions and find healthy ways to deal with them. Laughter is of course, one of those healthy habits that can lead to a healthier you.

Over the years you may have heard the saying “Laughter is the best medicine!” It turns out; science is actually able to prove that old saying right.

Most recently in 2008, Mary Payne Bennett, Director of Western Kentucky University School of Nursing conducted a study to see how laughter can affect natural killing cells. Her study showed these natural killer cells were more active against cancer cells after people were shown a funny video and as a result, laughed out loud. Interestingly, there was a difference between the effects between people who laughed out loud and those who only looked amused. So the lesson is – if you want to boost your immune system you have to go with the big belly laugh.

According to Dr. Jane Riffe, a former West Virginia University Extension Specialist, and co-author of Stress Less with Mindfulness Curriculum, laughter therapy has been around for many centuries. For example:

  • 14th Century – Henri de Mondeville, a French surgeon, felt humor was an important part of the healing process and believed patients benefited having relatives and friends visit whose job it was to tell jokes and cheer them up.
  • 16th Century – Robert Burton, an English parson and Martin Luther, pastor and philosopher both used humor in working with depressed people. They encouraged people to surround themselves with others who could make them laugh.
  • 17th Century – Herbert Spencer, who was a sociologist, used humor as a relaxation technique.
  • 18th Century – Both Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and William Battie and English physician used humor to treat illness.

In the United States, during the polio outbreak in the 1930s hospitals began brining clowns in to cheer up sick children. Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams established the Gesundheit Institute in 1972, which is a hospital dedicated to spreading humor, fun, friendship and joy to patients. Hollywood even got into the act in 1998 and released the movie, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams that tells the story of Dr. Hunter.

In the month of May, a team of MSU Extension Educators traveled to West Virginia University Extension to meet with Dr. Riffe and were trained in teaching WVU Extension’s Stress Less with Mindfulness Curriculum. The program contains five lessons on mindful breathing, thinking, walking, eating and laughing. MSU Extension Educators will be offering this class around the state in the upcoming months. If you are interested in signing up, or want more information, please contact, Holly Tiret at 616-336-8998, or email tiret@anr.msu.edu.

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