According to Groucho Marx, a clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast. Now it seems that the old saying "laughter is the best medicine" may have some truth in it.
Schemes around the world are unleashing "laughter therapy" on patients. In one of the latest, a community health project in Liverpool in the UK, people with communication difficulties are being encouraged, with the help of the local Comedy Trust, to use humour to play out difficult scenarios such as ordering a meal or using public transport. "It enables people to look at difficulties they may encounter in a much more supported and yet light-hearted way," explains Gillian Dowman, a specialist speech and language therapist.
This course is the latest to employ humour and laughter and use its reported abilities to strengthen the immune system, boost energy levels and counter the damaging effects of stress. Clown Doctor programmes have been used at several children's hospitals in the UK, while a number of cancer treatment clinics in the US, including the Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Illinois, now call in "laughter leaders" as part of recovery programmes.
"The idea behind using humour to fight illness or stress is that it either increases the activity of the immune system or that it interacts with specific personality traits to provide a 'protective' factor against illness," suggests Dr Neil Martin, a researcher in the psychology of humour and laughter at Middlesex University and the author of Psychology: A Beginner's Guide. "But the picture is complicated by personality - it is not mere exposure to humour that is important, but whether you score highly on what's called trait cheerfulness (and low on trait seriousness)."
However, according to some, forcing yourself to have a good laugh is all it takes to boost your health. "It encourages the release of 'happy' hormones called endorphins," explains Julie Whitehead, a laughter leader with www.laughternetwork.co.uk, whose work has been used by primary care trusts in the UK. "These react in the brain in the same way opiates do, bringing about a natural high but also working as a pain killer."
In Sharjah and Dubai, the yoga master Suman Kumar Suneja, also the chief executive of Murano Lighting LLC, has been conducting Laughter Yoga classes for several years, most recently at the Holiday Inn Al Barsha last month. Both Suneja's and Whitehead's classes combine stretching exercise and forced laughter into a stress-busting therapy. But as any fitness specialist will tell you, these endorphins are a natural by-product of raising your heart rate and exercising anyway - so where does the laughter specifically come into it?
Well, according to recent research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, there's more to laughter therapy than getting out of breath. A survey of 20 people found that 95 per cent of them experienced increased blood flow (for up to 24 hours) after just watching a funny movie, while 74 per cent had decreased blood flow during a heavier, "no-laughs" film. The results, when presented at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology, were said to indicate a strong link between laughs and cardiovascular health. "The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be to exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day," said the study author Dr Michael Miller. "Certainly some studies have found that salivary immunoglobulin and killer cell production increase after watching humorous material," concedes Martin. "These are measures of immune-system function - they increase to fight stress. So, their increase after watching comedy points to a possible role in fighting infection.
"But the evidence is mixed at best and there is no proof that exposure to humour can help 'beat' serious illness such as cancer and dementia," insists Martin. "Interestingly, in the most well-conducted immune-system studies, those who laughed most (not necessarily found the comedy funnier) showed less stress. Only those who laughed out loud showed the increased immune-system response. So, the physical response to humour is important - not the cognitive response."
Martin's doubts as to whether it's simply the act of laughing as opposed to finding things funny that make us healthier are backed up by a longitudinal study of 34 police chiefs in Finland. (OK, that sounds like the start to a gag but it's not). Followed over three years, researchers found no relationship between self-reported and peer-reported sense of humour and the officers' physical health and wellbeing. "In fact, some aspects of humour were correlated with being more overweight, with smoking and with risk of cardiovascular disease," warns Martin.
So can entrepreneurial types like Whitehead and Suneja really help us heal ourselves with laughter? "The simple act of doing something physical and unusual could be responsible for the perceived short-term effect," says Martin. "The placebo effect is strong - people want it to work, and believe it will, because they are doing it."