In the summer of 1964, well-known writer and editor Norman Cousins became very ill. His body ached and he felt constantly tired. It was difficult for him to even move around. He consulted his physician, who did many tests. Eventually he was diagnosed as having ankylosing spondylitis, a very serious and destructive form of arthritis. His doctor told him that he would become immobilized and eventually die from the disease. He was told he had only a 1 in 500 chance of survival.
Despite the diagnosis, Cousins was determined to overcome the disease and survive. He had always been interested in medicine and had read the work of organic chemist Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (1956). This book discussed the idea of how body chemistry and health can be damaged by emotional stress and negative attitudes. Selye’s book made Cousins think about the possible benefits of positive attitudes and emotions. He thought, “If negative emotions produce (negative) changes in the body, wouldn’t positive emotions produce positive chemical changes? Is it possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence, and the will to live have positive therapeutic value?”
He decided to concentrate on positive emotions as a remedy to heal some of the symptoms of his ailment. In addition to his conventional medical treatment, he tried to put himself in situations that would elicit positive emotions. “Laugh therapy” became part of his treatment. He scheduled time each day for watching comedy films, reading humorous books, and doing other activities that would bring about laughter and positive emotions. Within eight days of starting his “laugh therapy” program his pain began to decrease and he was able to sleep more easily. His body chemistry even improved. Doctors were able to see an improvement in his condition! He was able to return to work in a few months’ time and actually reached complete recovery after a few years.
Skeptical readers may question the doctor’s preliminary diagnosis, but Cousins believes his recovery is the result of a mysterious mind-body interaction. His “laugh therapy” is a good example of one of the many alternative, or nonconventional, medical treatments people look to today.