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The healing power of laughter

March 31, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Joel Goodman discovered the health benefits of humor at a very unfunny time in his life.

In 1977 his father was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm and traveled to Texas and famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.

Goodman flew from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to provide support.

The proverbial funny thing happened on the way to the hospital, Goodman says. Alvin, the hotel shuttle bus driver, was a magician, Goodman says. His trick was to share his childlike, playful sense of humor with Goodman and his mother.

They laughed. They were less stressed. They felt better.

Although Goodman's father faced a serious operation, and his wife and son still were concerned, they realized that laughing had helped them. They shared Alvin's approach with Goodman's father, and he felt better, too.

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Laughing didn't make the aneurysm go away, but it gave the patient a bit of respite from the anxiety and stress. From that relief, the body systems benefited, Goodman says.

Research on the physiology of laughter has shown that when you laugh, respiration and circulation are enhanced and the immune system is activated, Goodman says.

Laughter really is good medicine.

A 2000 study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore showed that laughter and an active sense of humor may help prevent heart attacks.

The study compared the humor responses of 300 people, half of whom had heart disease, says Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The participants were asked to fill out two questionnaires. One presented situational humor scenarios and multiple-choice answers to determine how much or how little the person laughs. The other questionnaire consisted of true and false questions to measure anger and hostility.

The study showed that people with heart disease have a 40 percent lower likelihood of responding positively and with humor, says Miller, associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"I think laughter itself is cardioprotective," he says.

Laughter reduces stress, and whatever reduces stress is good, he adds.

Why? Stress enhances the production of constrictor substances in the protective barrier lining of blood vessels. That can cause inflammation, which can lead to a buildup of fat and cholesterol in the coronary arteries, which can lead to a heart attack, Miller explains.

He advises his patients to laugh. He recommends that they dedicate 20 to 30 minutes every day to doing whatever it takes to get them laughing.

Watch a comedy. Hang out with people who make you laugh.

What makes Miller laugh?

His 3-year-old daughter Ilana cracks him up - especially when she makes a funny face and tells him he's ugly, he says laughing at the thought.

Judy Goldblum-Carlton practices what Miller preaches. A humor therapist at the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the University of Maryland's Hospital for Children. "Dr. Lollipop" makes sick kids laugh.

She works - actually plays - with kids undergoing harsh, unpleasant and stressful treatments for harsh, unpleasant and stressful diseases such as leukemia. They do practical jokes together, they do crafts, games, hang out.

Goldblum-Carlton, 54, grew up wanting to be a doctor or a clown. She says she's always just been funny and has known about the health benefits of laughter since she was 5. Her physician father took her on hospital rounds and plopped her on the foot of patients' beds.

"'Judy-Merl,'" she recalls her father saying, "'You know that laughter is the best medicine.'"

She recalls a Holocaust survivor who had lost her babies. Anxiety and stress left the woman's face when she threw back her head and laughed.

Goldblum-Carlton says she sees the same look on the faces of the children at the hospital, sick kids who throw back their heads and laugh as if there were a million tomorrows.

Susannah Willems, who lives in Gapland in Washington County, is one of those kids. She was 3 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 11, 2001, says Chris Willems, her mother. Susannah did chemotherapy as an inpatient and now goes once a week for treatment.

Her mother takes her to the Baltimore hospital, and her 7- and 9-year-old brothers go along.

The Willems family knows Goldblum-Carlton well.

"She makes them laugh," Chris Willems says. "They love her."

She does goofy things such as applying lipstick without a mirror and getting it all over her face. She grosses out the kids by eating spinach straight from the bag.

"It helps," Willems says.

Joel Goodman, 54, experienced the benefits of laughter and changed his life. He founded The HUMOR Project Inc. and serves as its director.

The organization, with a Web site at www.HumorProject.com, focuses on the positive power of humor. It hosts an annual international conference, workshops and has a bureau of about 50 speakers who present programs to businesses, schools and health-care professionals.

"We encourage people to develop their humor quotient," he says.

How? Goodman provides several ways:

First, acknowledge the importance of humor.

Surround yourself with humor. You may already have a "humor bulletin board on your fridge," he says. Include whatever brings a smile to your face, your heart, your mind, he says.

Develop your own comic vision. Ask yourself "How would my favorite comedian view this situation?"

Develop a childlike perspective. Ask yourself "How would an 8-year-old look at this?"

Look at humor as a positive tool to build up and bring people together rather than tear down.

"The bottom line of humor is being able to laugh at ourselves," Goodman adds.

Humor is important - especially in these unfunny times.

Humor helps us keep our humanity and sanity, he says.

"We need it more than ever."

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