The Remarkable And True Story of Norman Cousins
“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.”
In his novel, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins describes his rigorous recovery from ankylosing spondylitis, a painful collagen illness that rendered him immobile, and at its nadir, nearly incapable of moving his jaw. His doctor and long time friend Dr. William Hitzig put it to him bluntly: only one of every five hundred people diagnosed with this affliction fully recovers. To beat these odds, he quickly decided he needed to actively pursue why his body was reacting the way it was, and how to reverse the damage.
Foremost, he concluded that a recent, extremely stressful trip to Russia due to mis-communications and tight scheduling had rendered his immune system vulnerable to the toxic fumes emitted by large diesel truck engines working round-the-clock at his hotel. Then the task before him was simple. He needed to restore his immune system. He just needed to figure out how. Relying on previously read books on the subject, such as Hans Selye’s “The Stress of Life,” he learned that negative emotions, such as frustration or suppressed rage, are linked to adrenal exhaustion. Therefore, Cousins assumed the opposite to be true, that positive emotions – love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence – would yield salutary results. However, Cousins knew that “putting positive emotions to work is nothing so simple as turning on a garden hose.”
Additionally, the pain medication he was being administered – roughly 38 pills of aspirin and phenlybutazone per day – he learned could, even in small amounts, be destructive and promote internal bleeding. For this, he requested two things of Dr. Hitzig. To repair his immune system, dangerously high doses of ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C which he read could combat inflammation and nurture his deteriorating adrenal glands. And to combat the unbearable pain, Marx Brothers films. Candid Camera. And selections from E.B. White’s Subtreasury of American Humor. He quickly discovered that merely ten minutes of induced hearty laughter would produce about two hours of painless sleep.
The result is clear. After several years of continuous laughter therapy, Cousins experienced little to no pain in day-to-day living. Though he relied on Vitamin C to physically repair immune system, he relied on the often overlooked medication of laughter to mentally cure his condition and live to the age of 75.