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And What Makes You Think Life Isn't a Laughing Matter? : Health Experts Say We Need to Have More Fun in Our Daily Lives--Especially at Work


SAN FRANCISCO — All I wanna do is have some fun 'fore the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard. --Sheryl Crow

Think about it. How many times a day do you laugh? Not necessarily big belly laughs--just chuckles, giggles, yuks?

For the average adult, it's 15 times a day (down from about 50 for the typical child). And 15 pauses for a little mirth and merrymaking are not nearly enough to feed the human spirit, say the clowns and comics of the world who attended a conference on the Healing Power of Laughter & Play, which concluded here Sunday.

Sponsored by the Institute for the Advancement of Human Behavior, the conference on how to have fun has attracted a growing number of therapists, doctors, nurses, social workers and offbeat others since its humble origins aboard the Queen Mary in 1982. More than 500 people registered for this year's conference.

The meetings are held every few years to remind health professionals that fun is an essential component of wellness, said conference organizer Erin Sommerville. But adults today, who find it harder than ever to escape from work--thanks to cell phones, lap-tops, home PCs and fax machines--are having a tough time lightening up.

"Whenever you find someone up against the wall and who is evaluating their life, what is truly important, what they say is: 'Somewhere along the line I stopped enjoying my life. I forgot what it's like to play,' " said Sommerville, a Palo Alto hypnotherapist. "In our culture, we're starved for laughter and play. Play is thought of as too frivolous."

Persuading his patients that they need to spend part of every day playing is often one of his most difficult challenges, said Dr. O. Carl Simonton, a pioneer in the study of emotions and health and medical director of the Simonton Cancer Center in Pacific Palisades.

"We need to balance our lives between work and play. But play is not valued. It's considered by many people to be, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a sin."

But laughter and play are coming back into vogue after some years of being considered inconsequential to health, Sommerville said. With the 1979 publication of the Norman Cousins book "The Anatomy of an Illness"--which detailed his quest to overcome health problems through a positive outlook--laughter was quickly embraced in sickbeds nationwide. But hard questions soon followed: Does it really help? Does it matter if we laugh five times a day or 50?

Scientific studies, to some extent, have proved that laughter is helpful, Simonton said. He called psychoneuroimmunology--the study of how emotions and thoughts affect our health--"the richest area of science right now."

"When we change our attitudes, we change our body's basic chemistry, and we change it in a way that promotes healing," he said.

For example, many studies have shown that a positive attitude can bolster the immune system.

Studies show that laughter unleashes chemical neurotransmitters and hormones throughout our body, contributing to an overall sensation of well-being in much the same way that exercise does, said Barbara Dossey, director of Holistic Nursing Consultants in Santa Fe, N.M. This is why Cousins called laughter "internal jogging."

"There is this massive chemical shift going on," said Annette Goodheart, a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and the author of a book on laughter therapy. "When you laugh, your cardiovascular system gets a workout. You take in massive quantities of air. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up at first then settle down at a rate lower than before you began laughing. Even the anticipation of laughter shifts your body's chemistry."

People seem to understand intuitively that laughter is a stress-buster. And yet, too few people engage in that technique, Goodheart said. For example, adults who screw up will analyze the event and label it; children will laugh or cry.

Many adults become expert at listening to an "internal critic" in their heads while failing to see that humor and laughter is an equally powerful voice that can counter that negative voice, Dossey said.

"There is nothing wrong with an internal critic, but we also need to think of the other counselors in our bodies," she said. Laughter is one such "counselor."

But while humor can augment individual health, it is perhaps most powerful in its effects on a group, Goodheart said.

"Through laughter, we are connecting with ourselves, our environment and each other," she said. "That's why it's contagious; it gives the feeling of connection. Laughter breaks through feelings of isolation and alienation."


Humor may become more treasured as society becomes increasingly isolated by technology and the chances for human interaction diminish.

"We are all desperately trying to connect. We have almost lost the art. Everyone is waiting in the wings for someone else to do something a little bit playful so that they can come out and play, too," Goodheart said.

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