A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is laughter good medicine?

December 11, 1998

Dear Cecil:

The difference between being a drug addict and a Straight Dope addict is that I can only get an occasional fix of the Straight Dope. You make me laugh hard enough to put the pain out of my head that the ruptured disks in my back are causing me. Monday is when the Internet releases the Straight Dope; I seem to need less medication that night to relieve my pain. So my question is, is laughter truly good medicine?

Cecil replies:

Now, James. That's not the only difference, addictionwise. You don't hear about guys sticking up grocery stores to support their Straight Dope habits. Also, whereas most drugs merely make the world seem like a better place, with the Straight Dope it actually is a better place. That said, will a few SD-induced belly laughs cure what ails you? Well, if anything would, it's gotta be us. But that's a mighty big if.

The idea that laughter is good medicine has been kicking around for ages, but it got a big boost in the 1970s from Norman Cousins, the well-known author and longtime editor of the Saturday Review. In a 1976 article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "Anatomy of an Illness," later reprinted in the book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Cousins reported that he'd cured himself of a serious disease in part by getting a few good laughs every day.

It all started in 1964, when Cousins was 49 years old. On returning from a trip to the Soviet Union he started running a slight fever and felt achy. Soon he had difficulty moving his limbs and neck, and gravellike nodules appeared under his skin. Alarmed, he checked into a hospital, apparently immobilized by pain.

The doctors who examined him were unable to agree on what he had, except that it was a "serious collagen illness." (Collagen is a component of the body's connective tissue.) One set of experts concluded he had ankylosing spondylitis — arthritis of the spine. One doctor ventured the opinion that Cousins's chances for a full recovery were one in 500.

Cousins decided he wasn't going to accept that grim prognosis lying down, as it were. He guessed his illness had been brought on by the stresses of his week in the Soviet Union (hey, no argument here) and speculated that he was suffering from "adrenal exhaustion." He stopped taking the various drugs that had been prescribed and tried to buck up his adrenal glands with a combination of vitamin C and laughter. He found that ten minutes of belly laughs from watching Candid Camera reruns would give him two hours of pain-free sleep. He moved from the hospital to a hotel and arranged for megadoses of vitamin C to be dripped into his veins each day. His condition improved, and in a few weeks he was able to stand on his own. The pain receded, and though his mobility was limited for many years he eventually returned to work and resumed an active life.

Cousins's article and subsequent book were greeted enthusiastically. He received 3,000 letters from doctors, most of them supportive, and was asked to join the faculty of UCLA's medical school as a lecturer. He championed holistic medicine and argued that sick people should share responsibility for their treatment. By the time he died, from a heart attack in 1990 at age 75, his views had achieved wide acceptance.

Still, a few skeptics have questioned what Cousins's account of his illness really proved. The diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis (a nonfatal condition, by the way) was apparently never confirmed. Even if it had been, AS sometimes goes away on its own. The fact that Cousins medicated himself with laughter and vitamin C proves nothing; he might have achieved the same result saying the rosary. Even on a casual reading his conjectures about "adrenal exhaustion" (huh?) seem ludicrous. Few doubt that an optimistic attitude can be beneficial, but suggesting that you can cure yourself through positive thoughts, as Cousins came close to doing, opens the door to faith healing and all manner of New Age foolishness.

All this is not to knock the value of a few good laughs. Why do you think I write these columns? But if I ever get stabbing chest pains, the guy I want to see is a paramedic, not Allen Funt.

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