In 1964, following a very stressful overseas trip, Dr. Norman Cousins, a longtime editor of the Saturday Review, a global peacemaker, and recipient of the UN Peace Medal, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease which left him with intense, unending pain. His doctors reluctantly told him that he had only one chance in 500 of recovery and that he would likely be dead in a few months.
His resilient and optimistic nature refused to accept the doctors’ bleak diagnosis. In addition to his other accomplishments, Cousins was also a lively prankster who once described himself as “a man who loves to goof off.” He relished making people laugh and had a notable reputation as a legendary perpetrator of April Fool’s Day spoofs and pranks.
Cousins reasoned that if his illness was stress-related, then laughter might help him heal. With his doctors’ consent, he checked himself into a hotel across the street from the hospital and began taking high doses of vitamin C while exposing himself to a continuous stream of humorous films such as reruns of “Candid Camera” and old Marx Brothers movies. He also talked his nurses into reading him excerpts from the humor columns of E.B. White and Max Eastman. Miraculously, his condition steadily improved, his pain decreased, and he slowly regained the use of his limbs.
He wrote, “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep”, when nothing else, not even morphine could help him. He explained, “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
Within six months he was back on his feet, and within two years he returned to his full-time job at the Saturday Review.
Cousins proceeded to write a number of books, including Anatomy of an Illness, and Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit to share what he had so joyously discovered. He also joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine as a researcher in the biochemistry of emotions and professor of medical humanities. When he finally died in 1990, he had survived many years longer than his doctors predicted: 26 years after his illness in 1964.
His story baffled the scientific community and inspired a number of research projects that have since validate that laughter, happiness, and gratitude are indeed, healing balms for the body and the mind, and are essential elements for innovative thinking and creativity. If you want to have more Aha! Moments and higher quality ideas as well, try Cousins’ age-old remedy of laughing more often – the more, the better.