Charlie Chaplin once said that “humour heightens our sense of survival and preserves our sanity.” Chaplin would be proud. His son Christopher and daughter Josephine are members of the Advisory Board of an innovative independent nonprofit research, therapeutic entertainment and health education project called Rx Laughter.
Founded in 1998, Rx Laughter is the first large-scale project dedicated to researching the beneficial links between comedy and improved healing for seriously ill patients during medical procedures. The project is the brainchild of Sherry Dunay Hilber, a veteran primetime network comedy executive who began to study and promote the medical uses of funny TV shows and movies.
Although Hilber is a firm believer in comedy programs as emotional and physical healers, she acknowledges that laughter is not a substitute for medical treatment for serious illness. She adds that, “scientific research in the area of humour’s healing effects is generally weak and inconclusive, and we would like to provide more solid evidence on how laughter can improve immune system function and speed healing.”
To begin Rx Laughter’s research, Hilber chose UCLA School of Medicine for their renowned reputation and desire to find innovative ways of integrating emotional healing into the medical environment. The pilot project was comprised of Hilber, Dr. Margaret Stuber (Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehaviour Sciences at UCLA) and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer (pain management physician at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital and cancer researcher at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center), and formed a unique collaboration between the entertainment industry, pediatrics and psychiatry. With her show business connections, Hilber lined up initial funding and support from relatives of comedy greats such as the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields. Initial funding for Rx Laughter’s pilot project came from cable television network Comedy Central.
During the pilot phase, the leadership team studied children’s physiological and psychological responses to laughter. Data was analyzed on the effects of laughter on cortisol levels. Results from the pilot study were very encouraging, and findings were announced in a briefing to the American Medical Association in 2002.
In a worldwide press release announcing the AMA briefing, Dr. Stuber confirmed what Hilber had already suspected. According to Stuber, “laughter seems to induce a relaxation response in the autonomic nervous system. We think it could be used to help children who are undergoing painful procedures or who suffer from pain-expectation anxiety.”
Rx Laughter also used findings from the pilot study to implement an inhospital entertainment comedy network in the Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Critical Isolation unit at UCLAs Mattel Children’s Hospital. Rx Laughter, under Hilber’s direction, is now developing a system for children in ICU & Isolation that uses interactive technology to help patients laugh together while watching humorous videos. Future plans include the use of specifically-produced Comedy Health Education videos designed to entertain young patients, while at the same time educating them about their illness.
Hilber is hoping to launch a collaboration with scientists in Canada to do more complex research in the area of humour and its effects on health, building upon information found in the pilot study together with Canadian scientists who are experts in the area of positive emotion and pain management.
According to Hilber, “there has been an impressive amount of research done in the area of pain management in Canada, and the knowledge and expertise that they and Rx Laughter can develop into larger studies could yield some very exciting findings for health care in Canada.” Hilber also wants to set up an Rx Laughter closed circuit channel for pediatric patients in Canada. Rx Laughter has already worked with organizations such as the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. The festival donated age-appropriate tapes to Rx Laughter’s UCLA program, as well as to Montreal’s Council on Palliative Care’s two Humour Carts (affiliated with McGill University).
For Hilber the benefits of using laughter to promote healing go far beyond the hospital walls. She believes we need to move ahead to learn how humour and positive emotion can be used to improve sleep, family relationships and overall immune function for people of all ages. “I remain objective, however my hope is that in the next few years, we are going to find out more about the significance of humorous entertainment than we ever thought possible, allowing prestigious medical institutions to incorporate this entertainment in innovative ways into overall treatment plans.”
Dr. Zeltzer, Principal Investigator of Rx Laughter research at the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center agrees and predicts that “maybe the prescription will include finding what the patient’s favorite funny program is, prescribing it, and then looking at the impact on both symptoms and physiology.”For more information about Rx Laughter, please refer to their website at www.rxlaughter.org or contact Sherry Dunay Hilber at firstname.lastname@example.org.