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Posted: July 28, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

This Hospital Has a Laugh Track

The corridors of Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu echo with laughter, and Hob Osterlund, palliative care nurse and comedian, hasn't been the only one to notice. Laughter tells Osterlund that her patients are not only having fun, they may even be getting well.

Although numerous studies point to the health benefits of humor, laughter is conspicuously absent from most hospital hallways and prescription pads. But Osterlund has found a way for patients to medicate themselves safely by tuning in to the new comedy channel on the hospital's in-house television.

The channel, the first of its kind in the nation, airs clips of routines donated by local comics, including Osterlund, whose "Ivy Push" character delivers a poignant and pointed nurse's view of hospital life. Osterlund came up with the idea of an in-hospital comedy channel to give patients an upbeat alternative to news, drama, and action-adventure programs, all of which can reinforce anxiety and fear. Laughter seems to have the opposite effect.

Osterlund's review of the scientific literature convinced her that laughter can work near-miracles without side effects. Well, there are a few. Osterlund and her colleagues have noticed that patients, visitors, and staff are watching the comedy channel and laughing as a community. Patients also report less discomfort and request less pain medication. And when patients are comfortable and happy, they're less demanding and a lot less irritable.

Nurses and other attendants at Queen's report that their own morale has improved. "It's incredibly bonding to share laughter with a patient," says Osterlund. Little is more gratifying than a grinning patient delivering lines from the Ivy Push routine. The beneficial effects of the Queen's Medical Center comedy channel are so visible that Osterlund is seeking a corporate grant to help hospitals across the country start "chuckle channels."

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Not to take the fun out of laughter, but did you know that a good belly laugh triggers: an increased number and activity of natural killer cells that attack viruses and some types of cancer and tumor cells; an increase in activated T-cells; an increase in the antibody IgA, which fights upper respiratory tract insults and infections; an increase in gamma interferon, which tells the immune system to go into action; and a decrease in stress hormones?

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Why Giving Feels So Good

By Jill Neimark

Why help a stranger who stumbles in the street? Why send money to faraway victims of tsunamis? Why volunteer for soup kitchens or offer a caring word to a neighbor? For evolutionary scientists, altruism is one of the great mysteries: it feels good, is linked to better mental and physical health, and is intrinsic to who we are, yet no one can quite explain how it evolved.

Some have suggested that when we protect our kin we protect our own genetic legacy; that when we give, others give back to us, and that generosity enhances our reputation. Even so, at the heart of altruism is a big question mark. Why does giving feel so good?

Now, a new study suggests that altruism may be partly guided by genes that regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine -- the one linked to craving, pleasure, and reward. Subsets of dopamine genes vary in the general population, and the study finds that a specific, common subtype is highly linked to altruistic behavior.

The research, conducted at Hebrew University and other centers, was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in 2005. Psychologists and geneticists looked at 354 families with more than one child, measuring the individuals' tendencies to ignore their own needs and serve the needs of others, as well as their tendencies toward attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- a trait associated with antisocial behavior that is also thought to be regulated by variations in dopamine genes. They then analyzed the individuals' dopamine receptors for well-known variations, or genotypes.

Their fascinating findings: the most common genetic subtype -- known as the D4.4 -- was significantly linked to altruistic behavior, regardless of whether the receiver was a relative. Another variation -- D4.7 -- is known to be linked to novelty-seeking, aggressive, more anti-social behavior. The researchers conclude that variations in these genes reward a range of behaviors in humans, so that as a species we have novelty-seekers as well as givers. But in general, say the scientists, this gives us the first hard evidence that many of us are indeed "hardwired" for giving.

It may be that generosity feels good because it is rewarded by spikes in dopamine. The scientists even speculate that further research could reveal variations in dopamine genes that favor generosity to kin, and others that favor giving to all. Next time you hold the door open for a stranger struggling to balance a bunch of packages, think of those innumerable little dopamine-loving neurons lighting up your brain with bliss.


This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see www.SpiritualityHealth.com/subs. Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at www.caregivershome.com. Contact staff directly via email at ASKspirituality@spiritualityhealth.com.

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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