Can laughter cure illness?

Laughter and Cancer Treatments

Participants hamming it up at the First International Laughter Yoga Conference in 2005.
Participants hamming it up at the First International Laughter Yoga Conference in 2005.
Amy Vitale/Getty Images

Some people in the medical community have been skeptical of the healing power of laughter, but that's changing. In fact, doctors have begun to espouse laughter therapy to complement traditional treatments for injuries and diseases like cancer. Nearly every hospital in the United States injects a blend of clown therapy, pet therapy and pastoral care -- visits by a hospital chaplain or community faith leader -- into each patient's treatment plan [source: Nilsen].

How can laughter help with cancer? The science of happiness may provide an explanation. Some cancer treatment centers incorporate laughter therapy sessions into a patient's treatment plan to increase the positive thinking and happy feelings that support the healing process [source: CTCA]. It's all right if patients can't find anything to genuinely laugh about, because laughter therapy uses forced or fake laughter -- and it works. Instructors lead laughter therapy classes that are akin to exercises classes. During these group sessions, patients and their families play a game like "Simon Says" and make laughing sounds that the instructor calls out. As the participant does the laughter exercises, the brain releases endorphins. Endorphins serve a few purposes, acting as:

  • the body's natural energy booster
  • a natural painkiller
  • a natural mood enhancer

More than 100 hospitals in the U.S. have comedy carts or humor rooms [source: Nilsen]. Comedy carts are brightly decorated rolling carts that are filled with toys and games. Staff and volunteers travel the hospital floors to make bedside visits to patients to bring cheer and inspire laughter. What could one expect to find in a humor room? Don't be surprised to find upbeat and comforting decorations, furniture, flooring and lighting that create a fun space for therapeutic entertainment. Humor rooms typically house all sorts of games, toys, books, audio tapes and CDs, comedy movies -- and possibly a player piano.

Doctors encourage family and friends to show plenty of support to their sick loved one. Both laughter therapy and humor therapy involve social interaction -- after all, laughter is contagious. Some people believe that the camaraderie fostered by laughter and humor therapy banishes fear and promotes relaxation to help the healing process.

In the next section, we'll learn how laughter helps us tolerate pain.