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Saving Your Life May Be a Laughing Matter

December 20, 1987|LARRY DOYLE | United Press International

CHICAGO — On American Bandstand recently, Steve Schaffer talked about the importance of his line of work.

"Laughter is good for you," the 33-year-old comedian and actor said. "It can prolong your life. It's true. There was a man, Norman Cousins, who cured himself of a fatal disease watching Marx Brothers movies. He wrote a book about it, so it's documented.

"This," Schaffer said wryly, "could change the face of medicine."

Schaffer, a former social worker from Philadelphia, then launched into a hospital scene with wacky Three Stooges effects. It was much funnier than it reads here.

"Paging Dr. Bozo, Dr. Bozo . . . and his assistant Flippy the Seal . . . We have an emergency! Get this man in here! . . . Scalpel . . . sponge . . . bald head wig! Woo woo woo woo woo! . . . We're losing him! We're losing him! Quick, the banana cream pie!"

That may sound ridiculous, but it is not a joke.

Marx Brothers Shown

In a touch of irony, the week Schaffer's monologue appeared on television, Cousins was in Houston to help dedicate a new cancer wing at St. Joseph's Hospital. Central to the new wing was a room where cancer patients go to watch Marx Brothers movies.

"It works," said Cousins, the former Saturday Review editor who fought bouts of disease with hoots of laughter and wrote about it in "The Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient" and "The Healing Heart."

"In Houston," Cousins said, "they're getting results."

The new "Living Room," on the ninth floor with a panoramic view of the city, is an expanded version of a similar room created at St. Joseph's in 1980: a place cancer patients can go to feel good.

Humorous videotapes--Marx Brothers and Pink Panther movies are favorites--play on television, while some patients sit in overstuffed chairs reading from a large selection of funny magazines and entertaining books. Local comedians stop by to tell jokes from time to time, and Marvin Hamlisch has played the room twice. There are also games, but there have yet to be any pie fights.

"I deliberately named it the 'Living Room,' because it is a place for the living," said Dr. John S. Stehlin, head of oncology at St. Joseph's. "We have a lot of dying people come into the Living Room, with IV bottles hanging off their arms, but you wouldn't know it (that they're dying)."

Stehlin, along with a small but growing number of physicians and scientists, believes that laughter not only makes people feel good, it may help them get better.

Perhaps a dozen or more hospitals and nursing homes around the country have humor centers modeled on the Living Room. A handful of national organizations are also devoted to spreading the good word about laughter.

"It's astounding to see what happens when you get people really laughing," Stehlin said. "If you see these people, and if I would tell you the (medical) status of some of these people, you just wouldn't believe it."

Whether laughing makes the dying healthier, makes them feel that way or look it is the subject of some debate. Nevertheless, the point is that there seems to be improvement, period.

"Laughter really is the best medicine," said Joel Goodman, founder of the Humor Project, a 10-year-old organization that promotes the uses of humor and publishes the quarterly journal, "Laughing Matters."

"But it's not like we're inventing sliced bread here. Reader's Digest has been saying it for years," Goodman remarked, referring to the magazine's regular collection of anecdotes, "Laughter, the Best Medicine."

There is, however, a difference between saying something, even believing it, and proving it to the satisfaction of the always critical scientific community.

"We do know this," Stehlin said. "We do know that if we play these humorous videotapes at night, people sleep better. And we know that they don't need as much pain medication. That's obvious."

"The problem," he said, "is documenting that sufficiently to satisfy the statisticians. That's not easy to do, and the pitiful part about it is when you mention laughter, most people won't even take you seriously.

"I'd say 98% of the scientific community still thinks it's frivolous, but it's very serious to us."

Happily, the remaining 2%, if it is indeed that much a minority, is beginning to get attention. A number of research projects, some sophisticated biochemical studies, are finding that laughter and a sense of humor can overcome stress, bolster the immune system, give the heart a good workout, and perhaps even prevent the common cold.

"The scientific verification is coming in that the positive emotions do have positive effect," Cousins said. "He who laughs, lasts."

Sigmund Freud had his ideas about humor, as did Charles Darwin.

"When the sensorium is strongly excited," Darwin wrote in a description of laughter in 1872, "nerve force is generated in excess, and is transmitted in certain definite directions, depending on the connection of the nerve cells and partly on habit."

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