Friends laughing

Lighten Up with Humor, Play, and Pleasure

The process of becoming healthier can be presented as such serious business that you lose much of the humor and joy of living that characterize wellbeing. Many books about health are filled with predictions of dire consequences for failure to follow particular methods, horror stories of what certain foods or lack of foods can do, or warnings about the cancer-causing qualities of everything. It’s enough to make you crazy!

Recent studies indicate that humor is an effective stress reducer and that it may actually increase antibody production, which means a stronger immune system.

In 1964, Norman Cousins, then editor of Saturday Review, helped to heal himself from a life-threatening disease through a regimen of vitamin C, renewed self-responsibility, and humor. His reading of several classic books on the subject of stress convinced him that disease was fostered by chemical changes in the body produced by emotions such as anger and fear.

He wondered whether an antidote of hope, love, laughter, and the will to live would have the opposite effect. Encouraged by watching Marx Brothers movies and Candid Camera TV sequences, reading humorous books and stories, and listening to jokes, he found that short periods of hearty laughter were enough to induce several hours of painless sleep. Years later, Cousins recommended laughter to others, claiming that this “inner exercising” was beneficial in stimulating breathing, muscular activity, and heart rate.


It takes a long time to become young.

Pablo Picasso

Worldwide interest continues to grow in establishing the benefits of laughter and humor in health, supported by wide-ranging scientific research. The Humor Project Inc., based in Saratoga Springs, New York, one of many associations dedicated to tickling the funny bone, publishes Laughing Matters Magazine in twenty countries, and offers Daily Laffirmations through its Web site, http://www.humorproject.com.

Raymond Moody Jr., MD, the author of Laugh after Laugh: The Healing Power of Humor, has used this approach with his patients for many years. Humor works, he claims, because laughter helps take your mind off pain and problems, and catalyzes the basic will to live.


The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than twenty asses laden with drugs.

Thomas Sydenham,
Seventeenth-century physician

Take a Seriousness Break Right Now

Look in the mirror and make the wildest, most distorted face you can make. Now make an even wilder one.

Throw away your troubles. Stand up right now. Form your hands into fists and bring them together at the center of your chest. Raise your elbows on a line with your fists. Thrust your shoulders and elbows back sharply, as if you are trying to shake something off your back and shoulders. After the thrust, let your fists come together again at the level of your chest, and thrust your shoulders and elbows back again. Do this six to eight times in rapid succession, saying “get off my back” each time you thrust back. Release whatever is burdening you.

Read the comics in today’s paper. Forget the front page for a while.

Put on a comedy video, if you have one. Cue it up to your favorite funny part, and play it and replay it several times. Rent a few comedy tapes or go to a light, entertaining movie. Do this regularly.

Collect jokes. Ask anyone around you for a joke or two. Get on an e-mail joke-mailing list. Call a friend and have them tell you a joke, even if they know you’ve heard it before. Now you share one with them. Get silly!

Watch young children at play. Note the spontaneity and sheer delight that often characterizes their activities.

Remember laughing so hard that your stomach hurt? Can you recall what provoked that? Let yourself feel it again.


Therapeutic humor is any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations. This intervention may enhance health or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social, or spiritual.

The American Association of Therapeutic Humor

Redefining Play

Play is an essential component of wellness. It is necessary to keep the fun-loving part of yourself alive, nurtured, and happy. The dictionary defines play as recreation.

Re-creation! So, in the fullest sense of the term, it means to make new, to vitalize again, to inspire with life and energy. When you give yourself time to play you give yourself new life.

What words do you associate with play? Are they active words, like silliness, craziness, sports, games, excitement? Perhaps one of the reasons people don’t play more is that they have accepted a very narrow definition of play. Maybe they’ve looked around at what society tells them is “fun” to do and found that it wasn’t.


Imagine the world without pleasure. Life would appear colorless and humorless, a baby’s smile would go unappreciated. Foods would be tasteless. The genius of a Bach concerto would fall on deaf ears. Feelings like joy, thrills, delights, ecstasy, elation, and happiness would disappear. The company of others would bring no comfort or joy. The touch of a mother would no longer soothe, and a lover could not arouse. Interest in sex and procreation would dry up. The next generation would await unborn.

Ornstein and Sobel, Healthy Pleasures

Consider that play can also be described as absorbing, fascinating, peaceful, flowing, restful—that it needn’t be highly organized or competitive. Perhaps you have forgotten the natural play of your childhood, when you could lose yourself in exploring rocks, making a fantasy realm out of a chair and a sheet, or singing for your own amusement.

It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of filling every minute of your working hours with meaningful business. But this becomes a self-defeating strategy when it flows into your leisure time as well. The fear of “wasting” time has become an obsession for many, so they end up on a fast track of play.

Teenagers suggest that you “chill out,” or “relax, dude.” These admonitions are important as you approach play. Please don’t use any of the ideas here to burden yourself with increased demands on your time and energy. Perhaps it’s time to just do nothing for some part of each day. Slowing down long enough to receive the simple pleasures that are all around you is one of the most effective ways to deepen your enjoyment of life and thereby enhance your overall health.


We stake our lives on our purposeful programs and projects, our serious jobs and endeavors. But doesn’t the really important part of our life unfold “after hours”—singing and dancing, music and painting, prayer and lovemaking, or just fooling around?

Fr. William McNamara

What’s Your Pleasure?

What does play mean to you? Is there enough fun in your life? Enough time for simply fooling around? You will find it easier to begin exploring this subject by making a Non-pleasure List of things that aren’t fun or playful or enjoyable for you. Things like skydiving, or shopping for clothes, or running. You may even get a laugh or two out of making the list. Once that list is out of the way, you may be inspired to make a Pleasure List of what is fun for you—like checking out garage sales, going out for breakfast with a friend, or taking a sauna.

Go through your Pleasure List and indicate the last time you remember doing each of these activities. Is there one item on your list that you could do today? One that you will put on your schedule for this week or next? Many people find it helpful to actually put the date on their calendar, scheduling in times for doing something fun or for just doing nothing.


Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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John W Travis MD MPH Written by John W Travis MD MPH

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