October 2010

WEB EXCLUSIVEThe Best Medicine

For Dr. Steven Sultanoff, pursuing good health is a laughing matter
by SOPHIA KERCHER

He may not actually be funny himself, but for the past two decades, Dr. Steven Sultanoff has been an evangelist for therapeutic humor. The clinical psychologist, who leans more toward clever than hilarious, teaches the value of jokes, and the belly shaking that comes with them, to medical professionals and therapists at Pepperdine University and at workshops statewide.

Over the years, Sultanoff has come up with his own model for helping people through applied wit and whimsy. He calls it Humor Matters. But it’s far more than fun and games—his approach to levity has a purpose. “It’s not like you sit down and I tell you jokes. You talk about something, then maybe I exaggerate something, and you laugh at it. And the reason I might have exaggerated it was to help you shift your thinking about whatever it was,” he says.

Sultanoff had the aha moment that would shape his career during a training session for cognitive therapy. He realized everything he was trying to accomplish—managing our thoughts, behavior, feelings and even biochemistry—could be effected with humor. He developed a three-component model: laughter, mirth and wit.

“When you laugh,” Sultanoff says, “it affects you physiologically; when you experience mirth, it affects you emotionally; and when you exercise your wit, it affects you cognitively.” He has been known to don a clown nose to change the mood during a session, and he often instructs his clients who suffer from phobias to visualize a time when they laughed so hard it literally brought tears to their eyes.

Sultanoff sees proof daily that the emotional shifts stimulated by this are a beneficial physical aid. “You feel less stressed, and it seems to increase the tolerance to pain.”

Recently, there has been much media fanfare over a growing community that believes in pairing a hearty guffaw with breathing exercises—known as laughter yoga.

Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, founded Laughter Yoga Clubs back in 1995. He and Sultanoff have appeared together on panels, and though their approach is different, their goal is shared. “In laughter yoga, anyone can laugh without comedy,” Kataria says. “You start by fake laughing, and then once you lose inhibitions, it becomes real—and contagious.”

It should come as no surprise that California is home to the most laughter clubs in the nation. “The last time I was in Los Angeles, I suggested they start calling it Laugh Angeles,” Kataria says, punctuating his sentence with booming ha-ha’s. Celebrities Goldie Hawn and Oprah have endorsed the shift to laughter therapies. Former ballerina and Playboy model Cynthia Toussaint is a believer as well. She founded For Grace, a nonprofit for women in pain, and selected Sultanoff to speak at the group’s third conference, Gender Matters. After decades of enduring complex regional pain syndrome—sometimes known as the suicide disease because of the constant pain—she says developing a more jestful nature has helped her weather years of suffering.

“There are many options for pain, and we need all of them,” Toussaint says. “Plus, you get to have fun.”

Medical practitioners agree humor is a welcome distraction and valuable therapeutic tool, though even Sultanoff acknowledges additional research is needed to determine if fits of giggles can ever be considered an actual cure.

Laughter being the best medicine will have to remain a cliché—for at least a little while longer.