Anatomy of Norman Cousins as Percieved by Norman Cousins

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1988 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 2, Number 3


According to WEBSTER'S, a "humanitarian" is a person devoted to promoting the welfare of humanity. According to Goodman, a "humoritarian" is a person devoted to promoting the positive power of laughter, hope, and optimism.

Norman Cousins is both. More than any other individual, he has brought about a renaissance in the constructive applications of humor. His best-selling ANATOMY OF AN ILLNESS AS PERCEIVED BY THE PATIENT opened up many eyes (and minds) to the old adage, "laughter is the best medicine"--especially when the patient and doctor form a partnership. His most recent book, THE HEALING HEART, provides further perspective on how people can mobilize their healing resources and how laughter can serve as a bullet-proof vest against the ravages of panic.

Author of 16 books and editor of SATURDAY REVIEW for over 30 years, Cousins has been on the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCLA since 1978. In focusing on the biochemistry of the emotions, he has been interested in the brain as an apothecary capable of writing prescriptions for the human body. Although he strongly cautions that laughter is not a cure-all, Cousins has sparked the growth of the field of ho-ho-holistic health.

Norman Cousins is serious about life, but he is not solemn. He has a strong commitment to important social issues, which he balances with a delightful, playful spirit. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to interview him-- Norman Cousins has been an insightful and inspiring model for me. And now I am glad to be able to pass along to you some of his wisdom and witdom about humor and health as "kissin' Cousins."


Joel Goodman: Your work, courage, and inspiration have opened up many people's minds to the positive power that each of us has through our own emotions. I'm also aware that at times you've needed to clarify your position-- when people believe that humor is a magic wand and that you don't need anything else.

Norman Cousins: Forget about medical attention and just "ha-ha" your way out.

JG: Yes, that's one misinterpretation of your work. My sense is that you've been using "laughter" more as a metaphor for the positive emotions that are certainly related: hope, optimism, joy.

NC: Laughter is possibly the most physical of the positive emotions and has specific therapeutic benefits.

JG: Humor has been with us for a long time. It seems that people have either taken it for granted or ignored it. Your work has helped people to realize that humor is a common sense accessible to just about anybody-- and it can lead to some of those other positive emotions.

NC: It's like the story of the nun, who was driving along a country road in a Volkswagen. The Volkswagen ran out of gas. A Volkswagen's usually forgiving in that respect. This one was not. The nun got out, walked two miles to the nearest country store where they had a pump, and asked the grocer if she could buy a gallon of gas. He said, "Certainly, Sister, but we've got no can for you to carry it in." She looked around the yard and found a baby's potty. She asked if she could borrow it, filled it with gas, and walked back to the car. She was in the act of pouring it into the Volkswagen when a state policeman passed, observed the operation, and said, "Sister, I just wish I had your faith."

JG: In my work with The HUMOR Project for the past seven years, I've been able to "keep the faith" in humor by serving as a clearinghouse. Many people from throughout the world have sent me ideas on how they have been inviting and injecting humor into their lives. I know that after you "Anatomy of an Illness" article had appeared in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE, you received over 3000 letters from physicians. Are there any practical examples that stand out for you?

NC: Dr. John Stehlin invited me to dedicate a new facility at the hospital that he'd defined along the lines I'd written about in ANATOMY OF AN ILLNESS. He called it a Living Room, a place where people could get away from the hospital atmosphere. In the room he had video tape machines, recording machines, art materials, books of poetry, music, and many comprehensive creative subjects. It made a big difference, he feels, in the way patients responded to treatment. There is also a hospital in Decatur, Georgia that uses humor effectively. (Editor's note: See the description of The Lively Room in the "Funformation" section of LAUGHING MATTERS, Vol. I,

But, far more basic, I think, is the increased respect of the medical profession for psychological factors which affect the course of disease as well as treatment. I've been very gratified at the response. People ask me if the doctors were angry at me. I confess that I didn't see very much of it. What I've tried to do is to emphasize the nature of the patient-physician relationship in which the patient has confidence in himself and in the physician; and the physician also has confidence in the patient. He tries to bring out the best in the patient, for the patient is a resource. I don't think that is anything alien to the medical profession. In fact, last night, I was made an honorary member of the Surgeon's Society of Los Angeles. Yale University, the New Haven Medical Society, just made me an honorary physician.

JG: Is that for being so much on the "cutting edge?"

NC: In the almost two hundred years of its existence, they have awared degrees in medicine to three doctors who have made significant contributions...and they've now made me the fourth recipient.

JG: Congratulations.

NC: As I say, I don't feel that there's an adversary relationship with the profession, although a lot of people came to see me as sling-shot David.

JG: In addition to teaching and doing research at UCLA, you are also serving another function. Evidently, doctors will send you patients who have lost the will to live. What have you been doing with them, and have you been using humor with them in any way?

NC: Oh, yes. I use humor proportionately at the right time as one of the elements for mobilizing the patient's psychological resources. The panic people feel about illness is largely related to their helplessness and lack of control. People won't begin to panic if there's something they can do about a problem. So, the first thing we do is show them they have some degree of supervision over their autonomic nervous system. We put them through biofeedback exercises where they can increase the surface temperature of their skin by ten degrees or more just as a matter of will. When they see the actual evidence, they're astounded. Then, the next question is, "If you can do this, what else can you do?" Anything, anything! The fact that they feel they can start doing something is an antidote to the panic. And once you get rid of the panic, you get rid of that constriction of the blood vessels that is a disease in itself. It frees the body for its healing processes while also optimizing medical treatment.

JG: Speaking of medical treatment, I'm curious to know about your experiences with people like Albert Schweitzer. What, if any, role did humor play in his life and work?

NC: At night at the table, after saying The Lord's Prayer, he would become the town crier giving the news of the day to the members of his hospital staff. One night, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, now for the news of the day. As some of you may have heard, there are only two automobiles within 75 miles of the hospital. This afternoon, the inevitable happened-- the cars collided. Now, we have treated the drivers for their superficial wounds. Anyone who has reverence for machines may treat the cars."

The next day, he took me down to the leper village. I'd asked to see it. On the way, he stopped very briefly to allow a hen and six newborn chicks to cross the path. He tipped his hat to the mother hen and said to me, "You know, I didn't even know that she was that way."

I remember that day because we had a disagreement and he ordered me to leave the hospital. We walked down to the leper village, and he said, "Now, I'm going to ask you to do one thing. We have a basic rule here at the hospital. You must not touch the lepers or allow the lepers to touch you." I said, "Yes, sir." We went into the first hut. There was an old man whose eyes lit up when we came in.

He came forward and held out his hand, and I took it. Schweitzer said nothing at the time. When we got outside the hut, he said, "They told me you understood French. Do you want me to speak poor English to repeat to you what you're supposed to do?" I said, "Sir, I understand, but it was very difficult for me not to take that hand when it was offered." He said, "you are not making the rules of this hospital. Now, shall we go on with the expedition or do you want to go back?" We went on. In the very next hut, there was a woman with a leprous baby. While we were chatting, the child suddenly squirmed in the mother's arms and reached out to me. I lifted the child and held it and then gave the baby back. We went outside again, and Schweitzer said, "You will please leave the hospital."

I went back to my bungalo, and packed my bags. When I came out, he was sitting on the steps. He said, "Where do you think you're going?" I said, "I violated the rules-- therefore, I've disqualified myself, so I'm going to leave." And he said, "Why are you leaving?" I repeated my answer, whereupon he said, "Can't you take a joke?" Well, it was as good an example for me of improvised humor to get over a difficult situation. Of course, I stayed. I stayed for a long time.

JG: Have you had other humor mentors or models of people who have been using humor?

NC: I had a very long friendship with Bucky Fuller. Bucky was never funny intentionally perhaps. But as you have said when you have used the word, "childlike", he was a constant source of delight because he had very fresh and very primitive reactions to life. He had an unspoiled quality about him.

One time, when I visited him in the hospital-- I remember the day very clearly, because it was the anniversary of my heart attack (December 22, 1981)-- no sooner had I come into the room, he said, "Norman, would you read something to me?" And I said, "Certainly". He handed me an article and I started reading. He said, "Read very slowly." So I read it aloud, slowly, and could see that he was in very vigorous agreement with what I was reading. And then, every once in a while, he said, "Just stop for a moment." Then he'd ponder, then nod, then agree again. When I got through, he said, "That's an article I've just written. You know, that was the best reading anyone gave it today."

Another time, I was traveling with him in the Soviet Union and he taught the Russians a new dance step that he had invented.

JG: That he had invented?

NC: Yes. You see, Bucky at that time was rather rotund, swaying. This new dance step was so characteristic of him-- he always felt you could improve on something. I learned a lot from Bucky...and from other people, too. I have the most poignant memories of J.F.K., especially poignant this time of the year (the twentieth anniversary of his assassination). The thing that impressed me most about J.F.K. was that he was both youthful and wise. He was the best listener that I think I've ever known, and amazingly accessable.

JG: I came across a quote by J.F.K. to the effect that there are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. He suggested that the first two were beyond our comprehension, so that we must do what we can with the third. That blend of wisdom, humor, and freshness...

NC: Yes, when I think of him, I think of when I saw him the last time. I was in the Cabinet Room and I looked out across the White House lawn to the sheltered section of the grounds where the children had their little playground. He'd gone out there toplay with them for a few minutes. Well, what do you learn from such a man? I suppose it is to make the most of your opportunities while you can. Put as much into life as you can when you're there to do it.

From Einstein, I have the same feeling as I did about Bucky Fuller. He was very much interested in children, and felt that the perceptions of a child were not to be ignored. When he asked me about myself the first time we met, he was interested in what I thought as a child, what my questions were that I asked my teachers.

JG: When you talk about Bucky Fuller or Einstein, it reminds me of many of the programs I conduct which focus on the relationship between humor and creativity. They seem to go hand in hand-- HAHA and AHA.

NC: That's right. You see, humor, like any form of nourishment, makes human existence possible. If we were condemned to a world of logic, I think we would be misshapen intellectually. I think you need these discontinuities, sudden disconnections, sudden re- routing of logic. You need trainwrecks of the mind causing the train of thought to be derailed or upset somewhere, cars piling up behind. And the human laugh is almost like those cars shuddering as they pile up in the mind. The more one is confronted by these discontinuities in logic, the more one accommodates oneself to the trainwreck of these beautiful sounds we know as laughter.

JG: In your own life, you seem to be a blend-- on the one hand, you are obviously very serious and dedicated to particular causes, work, or beliefs. At the same time, you seem to be able to balance that with what some people might call an impishness and a lightness.

NC: People get very upset with me because sometimes I can't take certain things seriously. But fortunately, I've got a wife who's learned to put up with it. Out of sheer survival, she's had to devise a system. It's very simple. This has been the agreement between us: that if I say something with a straight face, she's allowed to ask me if I'm serious, and I'm compelled to tell the truth. This way, she's able to get through the day. And I do tell the truth.

JG: I also know that you do take certain things quite seriously. I'm aware of your work and commitment over the years on various social issues, including nuclear weapons. I'm curious if you've been able to juxtapose humor in dealing with "heavy" social issues like nuclear weapons. Do those two come together, or is it "never the twain shall meet?"

NC: I think it's the one subject that doesn't trigger happiness or joy. Theoretically, there ought not be anything in the world that's disconnected from it, as the concentration camp survivors have tried to teach us. But I haven't found myself able to disconnect yet from that.

JG: I seem to remember you talking a number of years ago about the use of humor during the Cuban missle crisis. Is there any "moral of the story" that would be useful?

NC: It was an example of the importance of good humor in the midst of an international crisis. In October 1962, we were having a conference of highly-placed Russians at Andover. The purpose of the conferences, which were begun at the initiative of President Eisenhower, was to do that which the diplomats could not do. The President felt that diplomats tend to dig in at a very early stage in the negotiations, where they're afraid that the slightest conciliatory move or sign will be misinterpreted by the other side as weakness. Therefore, both sides hold back, and you have a mirror image of compounded weakness. He felt that if you could get citizens that had the confidence of both countries, you might be able to examine outstanding questions between the two countries, probe for openings, and then report hopeful signs back to their governments, on the basis of which the diplomats might proceed.

We had no sooner started the conference when word came that President Kennedy was intercepting or blockading all ships going towards Cuba. Well, there were the Russians, and there were the Americans. We didn't know whether to go on with the conference or not. All we had in the first two or three days was a recapitulation of what was happening at the White House and in the Kremlin-recriminations, each side advancing its own position.

What we were not doing at that conference was trying to examine this question as human beings with a responsibility to each other. We were not examing the issue of what would happen to the rest of the human race. The real point was that neither the Russians nor the Americans had the right to fire at each other if it meant firing into the body of mankind, which is what it meant.

Well, the sessions got very tense, and it looked as if they were breaking down. I thought of Dr. Schweitzer and his redeeming sense of humor, and I asked permission to suspend the discussion on the Cuban missle crisis and suggested that we go around the table and have each person tell his favorite story. The Russians thought this was a fine idea. The first Russian to speak was Alexander Kornichuk, a friend of Kruschev's and a playwright. He spoke about the Armenian Radio, which is a species of Russian humor not unlike the shaggy dog story in the United States. What happens in the Armenian Radio is that someone has a question. He mails the question into the Armenian Radio and then tunes in for an answer.

Now, for Kornichuk's story-- someone wrote in the question, "What is the difference between capitalism and communism?"...tunes in radio and gets answer: "In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it's the other way around."

That completely broke the back of the tension at the conference. We went around the table. At the end of the line, we were beginning to think together. The humor had enabled us to know one another far better than any of the meetings that had taken place so far. And now for the first time, we began to speak to a common problem: how do we get out of it? We're in it. We both have to get out of it. There's no such thing as victory.

It was a powerful example of the power of humor to get people to throw off incidental affiliations-- incidental in terms of a main affiliation, which is membership in the human race. The Russians loved humor. Kruschev loved humor. He used to press me for my favorite stories and told me his.

JG: Do you have any favorite stories now?

NC: One I like has to do with a 79-year-old man who went into the confession box and told the priest that he was having relations with a 17-year-old girl. He then described such intimate details as frequency and the situations. The priest looked at the man very carefully through the slit and he said, "Excuse me. I don't think I've seen you before. Are you a member of this church?" The man said, "Certainly not. I'm not a member of this church." The priest then asked, "Well, then, why are you telling me all this?" The man then exclaimed, "I'm telling everyone!"

I rather enjoy being the butt of jokes, because you can tell them about yourself and they're accepted when you can't tell them about other people. For instance, the following story was told about me during an introduction to a speech: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Norman Cousins went to heaven on the same day. St. Peter showed us to our respective quarters, beginning with Paul Newman. He opened the door to what turned out to be a cell-- low ceiling, windowless, drab, water dripping from the walls, just stools, no beds. And seated on one stool in the corner was the fat lady of the circus. And St. Peter turned to Paul Newman and said, "For all your misdeeds on earth, this is where you will stay, and this will be your companion."

Then he beckoned to Robert Redford. His room was even smaller, again windowless, low ceiling poorly ventilated. Seated in one corner was a toothless, cadaverous-looking person with stringy hair. And he said to Robert Redford, "For your misdeeds, this is where you will stay, and this will be your companion."

And then St. Peter beckoned to Cousins. He came to a room and opened the door. Sunlight poured through a dozen windows...flowers...the furnishings were magnificent...high ceilings. In the center of the room was a majestic bed with pink sheets. On the bed reposed Bo Derek, unclad. And St. Peter said to Bo Derek, "For all your misdeeds, this is your companion."

JG: I'm glad that the readers of LAUGHING MATTERS have not missed your deeds. You rate at least a "l0" for showing that humor and health is a match made in heaven.


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