At the forefront of prescribing free social activities to support people with their health concerns is the U.K. National Health Service (NHS).
In the United Kingdom doctors can, and commonly do, write prescriptions for art classes, museum visits, ballroom dancing, gardening, cycling, golf lessons and fishing. In January, general practitioners in the city of Bristol were able to add another recreational activity to the list – comedy classes.
Can these medical professionals be serious, or are they having a laugh at our expense? You might be surprised at the answer…
It’s said that laughter is the best medicine. Someone who would have agreed was Norman Cousins, a longtime editor of the Saturday Review.
In 1964 he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis – connective tissue in his spine was disintegrating and the degeneration couldn’t be halted, neither could the pain. He was not expected to live for more than a few months.
For support he turned to comedy.
Comedians and Clowns are Healers
Mr. Cousins claimed later that he spent hours roaring with laughter, watching funny movies and TV shows. He wrote that just ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep because it produced “a natural body anesthesia.”
Laughter therapy, he claimed, saved his life and allowed him to live and prosper for another 25 years.
Little did he know, but Mr. Cousins was simply putting into practice knowledge that was acquired in ancient times.
Greek Doctors Regularly Used Laughter to Heal
Ancient Greek physicians prescribed visits to the hall of comedians to stimulate the healing process, while Native American healers incorporated the services of clowns.
The 14th century French surgeon Henri de Mondeville used humor in therapy and recovery and encouraged visitors to cheer the patient and tell jokes. In the 16th century psychiatric disorders were also treated with humor.
By the 1970s Hunter (Patch) Adams introduced fun and laughter in hospitals, and Clown Doctors began working in hospitals in 1986. You may recall the late Robin Williams starred in a movie about the famous Patch Adams.
But how does laughter heal?
Mechanisms of Healing Uncovered
The first person to explore the healing mechanisms of humor was psychologist William F. Fry in the 1960s, describing how it benefits the lungs.
Since then, many others have added to our knowledge demonstrating that laughter reduces stress hormones, improves immunity, and boosts endorphins – the body’s natural pain killers – validating Norman Cousins’ experience.
In addition, laughter can help keep the blood vessels healthy, dilating them and increasing blood flow.
In the field of psychology, humor also serves as a coping mechanism. Seeing the funny side of problems helps people deal with them, improves mood, and has been shown to lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The UK is Leading The Way
The National Health Service has just introduced “Comedy on Referral” to help patients with trauma. The classes will allow trauma patients to attend a free six-week course led by Angie Belcher, comedian-in-residence at Bristol University.
She also has a master’s degree in psychology and worked with health advisors to create the course. Participants will also be assisted by other comedians and counselors, allowing plenty of one-on-one help.
By the end of the course trauma patients should be able to perform five minutes of stand-up based on their own life. Ms. Belcher explained, saying, “Comedy is a force for good [and] can change people’s lives.
“Past traumas are perfect for comedy. Comedy doesn’t come from the happy, perfect moments of your life, but from everyday struggles and major life events.
“When you are ready to explore some darker times from your history, you find that just talking about it in a funny way is quite lovely, and more importantly, it has a ripple effect on your audience; you help other people to cope with their sadness.
“When you bring your story alive for others, it makes other people feel less alone; having your experience mirrored back to you is hugely comforting. Comedy builds community.”
And comedy apparently brings healing as well.