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The best gift is laughter

December 11, 2012
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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"The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than of twenty asses laden with drugs"

-Thomas Sydenham, M.D., famous seventeenth century physician

Soon after I retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry on June 30, 2012, I was asked if I wanted to be a clown. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Is this what I had come to, being a clown?

Then, I recalled that old saying: "laughter is the best medicine."

So, was this another way to help people after retirement? If not being a clown, then clowning around?

So, I looked into it some more. The suggestion came from Carl Hammerschlag, M.D., a psychiatrist who has done all sorts of healing rituals, including clowning. Most recently, he and other clowns went to Peru, where they set up the first public outdoors mental health clinic to provide brief psychotherapy for those traumatized (see www.healingdoc.com). This therapeutic use of clowns has been a long- term project of the physician "Patch" Adams, who is now trying to crystalize this in the Gesundheit! Institute. Outreach has been seeing sick children in hospitals, going to war zones, painting murals on public buildings, and visiting old-age homes.

In this holiday season of good will, why not bring a clown to your institution? It would be a gift to your staff, and maybe release some of the pressure from a year of hard work, of doing more in less time. 

If you have a holiday party for patients, as we did in our clinics for many years, add a clown. Or, maybe you or one of the staff would like to play one yourselves.

Come to think of it, perhaps laughter therapy would be good to incorporate in some way year round. It can be enjoyable, cheap, socially contagious, and has some research backing. Laughter therapy and/or laughter exercise can reduce anxiety, relieve pain, increase blood flow, and enhance a sense of well-being. Laughing at yourself can help keep depression at bay. The benefits of laughing can even be obtained with simulated laughter.

Of course, as with any treatment in our field, there can be side effects and fraud. Some people are scared of clowns. Therefore, if we use them, do some preliminary screening out of those people. Training and qualifications for being a "laughter therapist" are varied, not standardized, and often brief. Maybe most simply, it is "someone who can help you laugh." Avoid those who use sarcasm or make you feel that they are laughing at you, your loved ones, and especially at patients.

That caution aside, here's to having a funny holiday season!

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For a particularly good website on laughter and its benefits, see Laugh With Diane, www.laughwithdiane.com. Diane Kane is a Certified Laughter Leader.

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...