The Norman Cousins Story

Note: Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 to November 30, 1990) was an Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of California and a prominent world federalist leader. He was the executive editor (and then editor-in-chief) of the Saturday Review of Literature from 1940 to 1978.

A man of many achievements, he was a prolific writer, and, most notably, the man who became famous by outliving his medically diagnosed early demise in 1974 to 1990, 16 years later, by simply taking the time to laugh.  Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at  http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/)

After a stressful trip to cold-war Russia in 1964, Mr. Cousins developed a debilitating illness which confined him to bed. He was admitted to a hospital for tests and treatments, and was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative disease of the body's connective tissue. Subsequently, his condition deteriorated and he was given a gloomy prognosis. While confined as an inpatient, he noticed that the depressing routine of hospital life tended to produce side effects that aggravated his condition.

With the blessing of one of his doctors, he checked out of the hospital and into a hotel where the food was better and he could watch Marx Brothers movies while he medicated himself with high doses of Vitamin C. He was convinced that the slow improvement in his condition was due to his individualized methods of therapy and having taken charge of his own life.

Recounting his experiences as a patient in his autobiographical case history "Anatomy of an Illness; as Perceived by the Patient" he maintained that he literally laughed himself out of his illness. In addition to keeping up his spirits with humor, he also relied on his perception of the efficacy of high-doses of Vitamin C and on the restoration of control over his own condition.

What is especially notable to me about his story and his life is that Mr. Cousins popularized a belief in the power of the mind over the body. Keep in mind that this was also in a time when Western Medicine was believed to be infallible.

What I have enjoyed  about Mr. Cousin's life and work is not only his excellent writing ability, but his approach to life. I believe he is correct in that we can take control over our autonomic nervous system and subsequently, take more control over our health and well being.

Mr. Cousins was certainly a pioneer in the notion that laughter is the best medicine, and now it has been borne out through much research. Researchers at California's Loma Linda University set out to find out if humor can deliver more than just comic relief. The study looked at 20 healthy older adults in their 60s and 70s, measuring their stress levels and short-term memory. One group was asked to sit silently, not talking, reading, or using their cellphones, while the other group watched funny videos.

After 20 minutes, the participants gave saliva samples and took a short memory test. While both groups performed better after the break than before, the "humor group" performed significantly better when it came to memory recall. Participants who viewed the funny videos had much higher improvement in recall abilities, 43.6 percent, compared with 20.3 percent in the non-humor group.

Moreover, the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol, the "stress hormone," after watching the videos. The non-humor group's stress levels decreased just slightly.

Other studies have also shown the wide-ranging health benefits of laughter. A Vanderbilt University study estimated that just 10-15 minutes of laughter a day can burn up to 40 calories. Meanwhile, a University of Maryland study found that a sense of humor can protect against heart disease.

Lower cortisol? Lower stress? Sounds pretty good. But researchers insist the benefits are even greater.

“There are several benefits to humor and laughter," explained Gurinder S. Bains, a Ph.D. candidate at Loma Linda University, who co-authored the study. "Older adults need to have a better quality of life. Incorporating time to laugh, through social interaction with friends, enjoying exercise in a group setting, or even watching 20 minutes of humor on TV daily, can enhance your learning ability and delayed recall."

So what can be done?

"Find what makes you laugh and include it in your daily routine," Bains said. "As an older adult, you will face age associated memory deficits, but humor and laughter can be integrated into a whole person wellness plan that can translate into improvements in your quality of life: mind, body, and spirit.”

Thank you, Norman!

Next week: How do you live a good life?