12/22/2011 03:09 EST | Updated 12/22/2011 03:09 EST

Humour and Laughter: Can They Save Your Life?

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It's probably no surprise to hear that "laughter is the best medicine." There are many documented stories of how laughing has had the incredible power to heal. Dr. Norman Cousins is perhaps laughter's most well-known messenger, writing about it in his book Anatomy of an Illness.

After being told he had a life threatening illness with little chance of recovery, he created his own healing programme, incorporating large doses of Vitamin C, and daily bouts of laughter, compliments of old Marx Brothers movies. For me as well, I truly believe that my sense of humour (albeit rather off-beat or quirky at times) just might have saved my life. And more than once.

My father Louis, was an enormously gifted storyteller. There was something in his combination of tone, impeccable timing and expression, coupled with his rich sense of detail, that allowed him to re-tell long and involved comedic pieces. He'd immediately capture the attention of those listening and had them laughing hysterically by the end of each of his stories. Although generally a quiet and gentle man, he had a great sense of humour and really came alive when telling stories. A favourite of his was Myron Cohen, who was a popular storyteller comedian of the day.

My mother Lil has a great sense of humour, but on her own she isn't really funny. She's the kind of listener that my father and I need because they bring laughter to the equation. I'm sure her success at aging gracefully is due in part to her ability to laugh and often.

I'd like to believe I've inherited some of my father's storytelling abilities and sense of humour. For me, the juice, the meat of life is in the stories. People remember stories much more vividly than they remember facts. (1) My stories are simply my personal way of looking at life, observing the world around me and seeing both the idiosyncrasies and absurdities, yet the connectedness we share as human beings.

These are the kind of comedian or storytellers I've always been drawn to as well.

Those who use humour to expose the human condition, through their incredible use of language. George Carlin is an all-time favorite of mine. A brilliant wordsmith. Chris Rock -- I adore him, too. Both observe the world and dare to talk about often taboo topics, like sex, politics, religion and much more. Even Woody Allen movies, at their best, are stories I relate to and always make me laugh.

Somehow, I've always seen the humour in the things happening around me and to me. And at times, in my most dire of situations, I'd make others laugh, shifting the mood or breaking the tension. Yes, I can be a serious person, but I don't stay there too long. Generally, I see something funny in almost everything.

It's fascinating for me to observe what actually makes other people laugh. I recently saw Ellen Degeneres speak live at a women's event and she affirmed that her humour is based on kindness and compassion, not at someone else's expense. This is the kind of humour that appeals to me too. Often my humour is self-deprecating, at my own personal expense, but I'm OK with that if others see the humour and laugh along with me.

My daughter Lani and I share the most incredible and unbelievable bouts of laughter together, sometimes started from some seemingly ridiculous or innocent comment or observation. Often, others have absolutely no idea what we're laughing about, but they start laughing just because our joy is contagious. One of the innocent results of laughter is that you can spread it quickly. And in a tough economy, it's free.

Recently I read about Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician in Mumbai, India who started laughter clubs in 1995 because he saw that laughter can act like "a benevolent virus that can infect individuals, communities and nations." There are over 6,000 laughter clubs in 60 countries around the world now. The premise: small groups of people get together regularly to laugh. Just because. Their goal is thought-free laughter. No setup. No premise. No jokes. The result: pure laughter. As Kataria has said, "When you are playful, you are activating the right side of your brain. The logical brain is a limited brain. The right side is unlimited. You can be anything you want." He sees laughter as a possible path to world peace. I too am on this path.

Neuroscientists have also shown that it is our right brain hemisphere that plays an essential role in understanding and appreciating humour. (2) Thank goodness for this. In my life, I'd say I've rarely met people who have no sense of humour at all and I admit it can be unsettling when I do. Perplexing, to be honest. I wonder what it takes to get through to them? Does anything make them laugh? Since my personal goal is to get at least a small laugh or smile from those I encounter, humorless people mystify me.

Smiling, laughing and humour promote the release of endorphins, which is a very healthy thing indeed. Laughing, like smiling, decreases stress hormones and boosts the immune system. It also has great benefits for the cardiovascular system, as it increases your heart rate, pumping more blood to the internal organs. Laughter can be a natural way to relieve pain. Laughter helps us release tension, much like sneezing or orgasm does. Okay, am I the only one who sees something humorous in this trio?

Laughing, as my daughter and I have found, is a great social activity too. In the same way as storytelling, laughter is more about relationships than about jokes. I've heard that people rarely laugh alone, but I admit that I do. Because laughter is a form of non-verbal communication, it can convey empathy.

Children have been reported to laugh up to 400 times a day, yet adults only 15. As with smiling, kids are far ahead of us adults in their expression of joy. Humour is definitely a transformational tool. Through humour and laughter, we can bring about healing, celebration, love and compassion. Humorist Steve Bhaerman (aka Swami Beyondananda) says that God says we are all funny, but we just don't know it yet.

By laughing at myself, somehow, it has the ability to liberate others. Humour becomes a catalyst. When I was ill, humour was one of the things that helped save my life, over and over again. For sure, it has given me rich stories to share with others. Because people often identify with these stories, I can only hope this brings a little bit of lightness to them or their situation. Perhaps even a bit of hope in possibility.

My philosophy, kind of a motto, is "Hope, humour, life." I'm delighted when people tell me that somehow my humour and stories have brought a smile or laugh to their day. For me, a great sense of humour is a really big turn-on. One of the most attractive things, in fact, that draws me to another person. After all, who would laugh with me otherwise?

What stories do you have of how humour and laughter have saved your life?


(1) Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead, 2006. Print. pg. 101

(2) Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead, 2006. Print. pg.189

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