Harvard Acknowledges Laughter Can Do Things Medical Science Can’t

Written by Karen Carlson.

Living Healthy Laugh

“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize,” writes Bill Bryson in his introduction to A Short History of Nearly Everything (Random House, NY, 2003).


Trillions of Uncomplaining Atoms

“To Begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny ‘particles’ will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.”

Chuckles and Grins
Bryson’s science and humor track the Big Bang to the very recent rise of civilization, with glimpses of historical events and the uniquely “specialized and particular” human beings behind them. This grand tour of life, scientifically respectable and humorously realistic, lightens my perspective and elicits a chuckle, giggle or grin whatever page I happen upon.

Biological Good Fortune
“So thank goodness for atoms,” declares Bryson. “But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the 21st century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most—99.9%—are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous,” writes Bryson. “It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”

Devastating Losses
Linda Richmond knows about extinction, about loss: father died tragically when she was eight; mother mentally ill thereafter; 30 years’ toxic marriage; 11 years’ agoraphobic never left her apartment; 29-year-old playwright son died in an auto crash. Linda Richmond is the prototype for Saturday Night Live’s Coffee Talk Lady portrayed by her son-in-law Mike Meyers (star of Wayne’s World).

 Life Offers Humor
Linda Richmond lectures at the fancy Canyon Ranch Spa. Her message is simple. “I tell them that no matter what horrible thing has happened, life still offers you humor if you want it. I say that regardless of how low you feel today, someday you’ll find something that will make you laugh your head off. I guarantee that you’ll sing and dance once more. I promise that if you will only make a small effort, you will rediscover happiness.”

Harvard Extols Laughter

In her book I’d rather laugh. How to Be Happy Even When Life Has Other Plans for You (Warner Books, NY, 2001) she recalls, “A friend of mine and his wife had been trying unsuccessfully to have a child. They ended up at a very expensive weekend workshop at Harvard University....The first day of the workshop was all about fallopian tubes and egg cells and sperm cells and all that jazz. The second day the experts discussed laughter and how it can release endorphins and other stuff in your body that will maybe allow you to relax enough to conceive. I was amazed when I heard that. Even Harvard now acknowledges that laughter can do things medical science can’t.”

Discover New Layers of Humor

Richmond is still discovering new layers of humorous perspective around her challenges like being homebound with undiagnosed agoraphobia. “Even now, when I think of it—eleven years! It took less time to win World War II! It took less time to build the atom bomb! It took NASA less time to put a man on the moon than it took for me to go from my living room to my driveway!”
Restore the Joy
She says, “I stand up there as naked as can be and tell them all the terrible stuff that’s happened to me and all the crazy, desperate things I’ve done in response. And then all the things I’ve done to bring myself back from the abyss and restore the joy.”

Party Hearty

One of the restorative techniques she uses is to have a 48-hour pity party when the memory of a loss strongly resurges. “You allow yourself to behave like an insane person for exactly two days. I cancel everything for the next day or so. I don’t take a shower and I don’t wash my hair. I don’t even leave my bed except when nature requires me to....I pull the covers over my head, and I lie there feeling sorry for myself. I weep. I curse, I suffer—not just a little. A lot....Those pity parties have an amazingly positive influence on the rest of my life. I always leave those parties feeling great.”

We’re All a Little Weird

Richmond says she gets a lot of mileage out of making fun of various issues which arose from her painful past. “The only good thing about the word [‘issues’] is that it allows us to state our wierdnesses loud and clear, without the fear of judgment....We’re all a little weird. It feels good to get your weirdness out in the open. We’ve all got our share....Let me hear that a tooth is in trouble and I go to pieces. I react as though I just heard I’ll need a leg amputated....The nicest thing you can do for me is to compliment me on my teeth. Keep in mind, they’re all capped. Still, I need to hear it. This may have something to do with the fact that in reality, my mouth is a mess. I’ve had fourteen root canals. I don’t just have bridges in there—I have tunnels, on-ramps, exits and entrances. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not dentistry in there it’s architecture. But my teeth mean a lot to me. You can call me fat, dumb or lazy and I won’t lose my temper, but insult my teeth and I’ll bite you. I’ll knock out a few of yours.”

Humor Adds Balance

Some wise person likened a sense of humor to the pole that adds balance to our steps as we walk the tightrope of life. Mel Brooks says, “When you laugh it is an involuntary explosion of the lungs. The lungs need to replenish themselves with oxygen. So you laugh, you breathe, the blood runs, and everything is circulating. If you don’t laugh, you’ll die.” Whether humor endorsement comes from Hollywood or Harvard, we all know it is good medicine. Please practice wholesome humor every day.

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