If your doctor ever tells you to lighten up, don't be offended. Research shows that laughter and a positive attitude can be healing. They not only help bolster your immune system, but they also lead patients to take better care of themselves.
Mirth as medicine was the last thing on Christine Clifford's mind when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. As she and her husband explained to their two young sons that she'd need treatments that would make her ill and cause her hair to fall out, her then-11-year-old said, "Cool. You'll look like Captain Picard on StarTrek."
"That was the first time I'd laughed in eight days," says Christine, 43, of Edina, Minnesota. "The pain lifted for a minute -- and I realized I can still laugh, still learn to enjoy what I have."
She has since written a cartoon book, Not Now . . . I'm Having a No Hair Day! (To order, call Pfeifer-Hamilton, 800/247-6789), a compilation of funny moments during her recuperation. Says Christine, "If you don't find the humor, you'll dry up."
Laughter pumps up the muscles of the abdomen, chest, shoulders, and neck, says William F. Fry, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School. Laughter also stimulates the brain, ventilates lungs, and raises heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and circulation. "It's a total body experience," says Dr. Fry.
Finding things to laugh about when you are ill isn't easy. Here are some tips from the trenches:
See your life as a sitcom. When Christine's wig and hat blew off at a professional golf tournament, everyone around her gasped in horror. "You can either be mortified or laugh," says Christine, who sneaked under the ropes to retrieve her wig from the fairway. "I turned to the golfers and said, 'Gentlemen, the wind is blowing left to right.'"
Share humor with others. In 1992, researchers at Duke University found a 50 percent five-year mortality rate among unmarried heart patients without a close friend or confidant, compared with only a 17 percent mortality rate for heart patients with a spouse, confidant, or both.
So joke with your family, coworkers, and friends verbally, by e-mail, or by fax. Find a friend who has the same sense of humor that you do, says Dr. Fry. "Humor is contagious, laughter is infectious, and both are good for your health," he says.
Start the day with laughter. Abraham Lincoln always started cabinet meetings with a joke, says Leslie Gibson, R.N., founder of the Comedy Connection, a volunteer service of Morton Plant Mease Healthcare in Clearwater, Florida. Once, when harassed by a heckler who called Lincoln two-faced, the president retorted, "If I'm two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
Try waking up to humor with a cartoon-a-day calendar, or listen to a comedy cassette while you commute.
You may find it easier to chuckle if you set aside a night or two for laughter, beginning with a joke-around at the dinner table. Then watch a funny movie or go to a comedy club or a store to read funny cards.
When all else fails, fake it. Your body doesn't know the difference between the physical reaction of a sincere or a fake laugh, says Gibson. Sit erect, talk more cheerfully, and flash a smile. "When you take a deep breath in to laugh, you expand your lungs, increasing your circulation," she says.
Last Laugh. Not even laughter can stave off the inevitable. But you'll know you've taken the lighter path if you keep keep laughing right up to the end. Even as he lay dying, playwright Oscar Wilde was able to find some humor. He reportedly quipped: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go."