Laughter as medicine
We’ve heard it: “Laughter is the best medicine.” For those who engage regularly in laughter you’ll know it's true by how it feels. But just in case you want a bit of science, here’s one drop: “Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.” (Source)
There are lots of other resources you can look to that say similar things. Forbes listed six ways laughter helps in this 2017 article, including the increase in brain connectivity and helping us connect to one another.
These last two points are especially important to me because of their underutilized and, in my opinion, under appreciated value in our society. As we strive to come together, rather than be torn apart, laughter is a powerful unifying force. When you share a laugh with someone, it is an agreement to share a piece of humanity. The act of being the one to help cause that laughter is about the most addictive feeling there is.
I’ve loved and studied comedy my whole life. As a child I listened to Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin albums over and over again, memorizing their beats, brilliance and characterizations. I later performed standup for a few years in L.A. - finding it incredibly difficult and, on the few occasions where I did well, undeniably satisfying.
The first time I saw it actually being presented as more than an idea of medicine was in the film “Patch Adams”. While the film was uneven, the idea behind it and the energy Robin Williams brought to the biopic were, and are still, fantastic.
In early 2017, Northwestern University Professor Danny Bega published an academic paper, “Laughter is the best medicine: The Second City®improvisation as an intervention for Parkinson's disease”. In it, he partnered with Chicago’s famed improvisational theater, The Second City. They looked at the impact of improvisation upon People With Parkinson’s (PWP). In short, “All participants indicated that they would recommend the class to others with PD. 21/22 participants enjoyed the class and felt it was beneficial for their symptoms.“
What did they do? They met as a group for 60 minutes, once a week, for 12 consecutive weeks. They played a series of games that have been honed over decades from the early efforts of social worker Viola Spolin. By playing these games together they broke down barriers between each other, laughed and became closer to one another.
I experienced a similar class as a Care Partner that The Second City and Lou Ruvo Brain Center for Health put on here in the spring of 2018. Here’s the video they put together from that experience. Though I’ve performed and taught improv for over twenty years, this was the first time I’d experienced it from a health perspective. It was incredible.
I have applied for a grant from the Parkinson Foundation to lead another program in Las Vegas with the help of Dr. Poston at UNLV and ComedySportz that explores this offering even more deeply and adds another layer of academic research. It’s funny, considering laughter as real medicine, rather than just as an idiom. But the truth is, it works. I look forward to adding another layer of proof to the concept.