In 1964, at age 49, Norman Cousins — then best-known as the editor of the Saturday Review, a now defunct weekly magazine — collapsed in the middle of his living room floor. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with sudden-onset degenerative collagen disease, a connective tissue condition that rendered him nearly quadriplegic and caused him severe back pain. His doctor gave him a one-in-500 chance of recovery.
A lifelong optimist, however, Cousins figured he could beat the odds.
“He knew that there was research and evidence showing that negative emotion — fear, anger, anxiety — was bad for you,” said Anne Harrington, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, as quoted in the book Fingerprints of God. “But he felt that there had been little study of whether positive emotions might have the opposite effect on your health, that it might be good for you. He felt he had nothing to lose, because he wasn’t going to get better through conventional means, and perhaps he had a lot to gain.”
Cousins checked himself into a hotel room and developed his own treatment. He hired a doctor to pump doses of vitamin C through his IV and prescribed himself a “laughter routine” in which he read funny excerpts by E.B. White and watched episodes of “Candid Camera” and Marx Brothers films.
According to Cousins, it worked.
“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he wrote in a special report published in a 1976 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
After the article was published, Cousins’ career took off. He signed a book deal, which was made into a TV movie, and was hired as an adjunct professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science at UCLA.
Not everyone was convinced of Cousins’ findings, however. Arnold S. Relman, who began editing The New England Journal of Medicine just months after Cousins’ article was…