Of all the research I’ve done on the healing power of laughter; none has failed to top the amazing story of Norman Cousins, as his life truly speaks to the incredible power of laughter. Having read several varying legends about Cousin’s actual story, I decided to read his book Anatomy of an Illness and get to the source of the legend of the man who claimed to have literally laughed his way back to health.
His story began in 1964, where doctors found that the connective tissue in his spine was deteriorating, which a condition is known as Ankylosing Spondylitis. The doctors, one of whom was a close friend of Cousins, speculated that his chance of survival was approximately 1 in 500.
Faced with the real prospect of his impending death, Cousins thought long and hard about what role, if any, he could play in his own recovery, and eventually did three things utterly contrary to medical opinion.
First he began his own research on all of the various drugs he was on. He discovered that his condition was depleting his body of Vitamin C and, based primarily on Cousins’ personal research, doctors agreed to take him off several of the drugs he was on and inject him with extremely large doses of this supplement, as Cousins felt this may be his last hope.
Secondly, Cousins made a decision to check himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room. Cousin’s had concluded that hospitals, with their haphazard hygiene practices, culture of overmedication, general feelings of negativity, and routines that disrupted basic sleep patterns, all contributed to his feeling that, in his words a hospital was “no place for a person who is seriously ill.”
The third thing Cousin’s did was procure a movie projector and a large supply of funny films, including numerous Candid Camera tapes and several old prints of Marx Brother’s movies. On his first night in the hotel Cousins found that he laughed so hard at the films that he was able to stimulate chemicals in his body that allowed him several hours of pain free sleep. When the pain would return he would simply turn the projector back on and the laughter would reinduce sleep, and he was able to measure the changes in his body by measuring his blood sedimentation rate, a key measurement of inflammation and infection in the blood, and found that this rate dropped by at least 5 points each time he watched one of these videos.
Now off everything except Vitamin C and laughter, Cousins described being in a state of euphoria over the next week as he continued to laugh himself back to health. Within a few weeks the beloved editor was back to work at the Saturday Review, and, although he still had some minor physical difficulties, his body continued to recover as he continued with his self- directed wellness program.
How in the world did this happen? In exploring this question it is interesting to consider Cousin’s own state of mind, and how much his personal will to live as well as his personal attitudes contributed to his miraculous recovery. While in the hospital Cousins hypothesized that if negative emotions such as anger and frustration could contribute to poor health, why couldn’t positive emotions such as joy and laughter have the opposite effect? Cousins soon embraced this idea, and this contributed to an optimistic attitude that may very well have saved his life.
So could Cousin’s recovery be considered a mechanism of the placebo effect? In answering this question Cousins himself spoke to famous endocrinologist Ana Aslan who posited that creativity was the central trigger of the placebo effect, as it sets up a chain of events in the body’s systems that eventually restores homeostasis and feelings of wellness, The implications of this assertion are potentially enormous, and certainly deserves further study.
In analyzing the potential placebo affect in his own case, Cousins attributed much of his own success to the close personal friendship and relationship he had with his doctor who fully supported his contributions to his own recovery and encouraged his highly experimental approach despite it not fitting with his preconceived medical model. This idea once again speaks to the power of the relationship between doctor and patient, which is now nearly universally accepted and statistically verified as the single most important predictor of positive outcomes in talk therapy. But could this also be true for physicians and patients in the world of medicine? A great deal of research seems to suggest that it is, and Cousin’s case certainly speaks to this idea.
Most fascinating about Cousin’s story though is the laughter. Despite intense pain and discomfort, Cousin’s made a point of laughing so hard his stomach hurt during the early stages of his Marx brother’s intervention, and this “unquenchable” laughter never failed to produce a strong reduction in his feelings of pain. Cousins goes on to mention many prominent thinkers throughout the ages who knew about the healing power of laughter, and this list includes Sir Frances Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, as well as the great Albert Schweitzer. This list could be much longer, and Cousins own story has given rise to many knew ways of thinking that helped contribute to the rise of phenomena such as the laughter club. Ultimately laughter may represent the rapture of the human spirit, and in finding this rapture we also find our way back to health. Norman Cousins certainly thought so, and his journey back to life through laughter is an inspiration to us all.