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Home > Research Articles > Using Humor To Heal

USA TODAY

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

USA TODAY - March 04, 2003

CHICAGO -- Terrorism is not funny. Or is it? Consider a New Yorker cartoon that public health doctor Sandra Ritz uses as part of her lecture on ''survivor humor.'' It shows an Arab man, strapped with explosives, talking to four wannabe suicide bombers. ''Now pay attention,'' the teacher says. ''I'm only going to do this once.''

Finding the humor in the cartoon comes from an ability to see the absurdity of the situation.

And it also provides relief.

''The minute you can see the humor in a disaster or a trauma is the minute you know you're going to get better,'' says Ritz, a lecturer and consultant. ''That's how you know you have regained control.''

For Ritz and colleagues in the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, there is no doubting the redemptive power of a good laugh.

Judging from the discussions at the association's conference in Chicago last weekend, humor is practically a cure-all. It can make you richer, smarter and healthier. It can stave off Alzheimer's disease and boost immune systems. It can motivate the least interested student and build morale in the stuffiest office.

Once you get past the exhibitor's arcade of red noses, whoopee cushions and the bowls of ''Laffy Taffy'' candy, it's clear that a new sort of science is emerging from the work being done by members of the 12-year-old association.

This is the serious side of humor.

But serious, in the humor business, means laughter. Peals of laughter. Side-splitting, stop-it-you're-killing-me laughter.

It came from the room where Shobi Dobi, the caring clown, was in full makeup and armed with soap bubbles for a seminar on humor in nursing.

It came from the hall where comedian Tim Davis demonstrated stand-up comedy techniques for teachers.

It even came from the lecture on humor in religion by Susan Sparks, an assistant pastor of the American Baptist Church in New York.

''Love thy neighbor?'' Sparks asks, riffing on the Ten Commandments. ''What if he's a telemarketer?''

But the keynote lecture on Sunday was a sober call for more serious and scholarly study of humor, including a debunking of some conventional wisdom that laughter is a cure-all.

''The whole idea that when we laugh, it stimulates all these good (physical) benefits is wrong. There's no proof,'' says Rod Martin, a leading humor researcher and director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Martin recently published a paper in which he reviewed all of the previous humor research and studies. He found it lacking.

Because the study of humor often is shunted aside for more serious pursuits in academia, those who have looked into its effects have had to make do with tight research budgets.

That's no excuse, he says.

''In research we have to become more focused. We have to be clear when we're talking about therapeutic humor; it's not all humor,'' Martin says. ''People hear humor is good, and they think sitting around all night watching sitcoms will make them healthier. I'm pretty sure that's not beneficial.''

What is clear from the research, Martin says, is that rather than direct health effects, such as lowering blood pressure, humor has indirect benefits, such as helping control emotions or cope with difficulties. Martin believes its greatest use is in psychology rather than medicine. In these times of trouble -- war looming, the economy falling and terrorism alerts deepening -- people who are feeling overwhelmed just might take a step toward recovery by watching TV, Ritz says.

Ritz has spent 10 years studying how communities cope with disaster. She says that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's appearance on Saturday Night Live two weeks later that signaled an end to the mourning.

And though the attacks continued to affect people, especially those closest in geography and proximity to the victims, every new day brought a little more relief.

''In a disaster of that scope and at that level, people take cues from the survivors,'' Ritz says. ''People want to laugh. They want relief. But it's a horrible situation. They need the survivors to tell them it's OK.''

Allen Klein, author of Courage to Laugh, agrees: ''Humor can help us cope with anything.''

Klein calls himself a ''jollytologist.'' His business card features a line-drawn portrait with a clown nose. He developed his theory of humor as a coping tool when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 34.

''What's going on today with the war and the economy is not funny,'' Klein says. It's easy to get depressed or muddled up over the constant terrorism alerts. The corporate scandals at Enron and elsewhere could easily evoke cynicism.

''What humor does always is give us perspective,'' Klein says. ''A laugh is instant perspective.''

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Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.