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TEDx Speaker: Laughter's Healing Power Is No Joke

Debra Joy Hart
Debra Joy Hart
Debra Joy Hart is an expert in the power of therapeutic humor. She’s a nurse, a hospital clown, and a speaker at Saturday’s TEDx Normal at Illinois State University's Center for Performing Arts. ";s:

There's a saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy. It's a formula, suggesting that even your worst moments may grow a little bit funny if you wait long enough.

But what if you don't wait at all? How does the equation—and the energy of a room or a person—change when humor is added now

Debra Joy Hart is an expert in the power of therapeutic humor. She’s a nurse, a hospital clown, and a speaker at Saturday’s TEDx Normal at Illinois State University's Center for Performing Arts. 

“People not only like to laugh, but they like to create laughter. They feel more in charge. And when you’re a patient, you often feel ‘done to.’ You feel weaker, not as strong. But if you can make someone else laugh, it’s like you regain power and feel empowered,” said Hart, who lives in St. Joseph near Champaign. 

Hart trained as a nurse, but she discovered the usefulness of humor way earlier. Hart was bullied as a kid, so she turned herself into the class clown. That changed the energy around her.

“That has a lot of power,” Hart said. 

Hart first tapped into her hospital clown alter ego Daisy in 1995. But throughout her career, Hart has relied on humor even as herself. She’s a member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor

Hart says research proves laughter can have a real physiological impact on the human body, producing benefits for your immune system and reducing the stress hormone cortisol, among other things.

The benefits aren’t always chemical. Hart recalls the day that a dying man’s family quietly waited for his passing in the hospital. Then the man’s son recognized Hart (a nurse that day) and a past encounter his father had with Daisy the Clown. The son leaned over his dying father to remind him of Daisy—and he muttered “Ha!”

“In that moment, when he said ‘ha,’ it got his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild all talking about all the times that their grandfather and father made them laugh. I like to think that gave them energy to get through the next several hours,” Hart told GLT’s Sound Ideas

Like any comedian, you have to read the room, Hart said. Humor isn’t always the answer. 

But it can buy you a breath. Hart was responsible for telling her 65-year-old mother she had cancer. Her mother had worn wigs most of her life, so the prospect of chemotherapy hair loss opened the door for a joke. 

“‘You won’t have to buy any more wigs,’ I told her,” Hart recalled. “She just took a breath. And that’s all I wanted her to do—to take a little breath. And she said, 'Ha.' And it really is in the ha. Just separating yourself for just a moment from the horribleness to just take a breath, so you can continue. Because if you’re not breathing, chances are you’re dead.” 

Hart has used humor in all sorts of settings. Her nursing and teaching experience is in alcohol and drug rehabilitation, hospice, long-term care, men’s emergency and transitional shelter, and public health. 

“People who are dying are much more real. Many times the people go, ‘I better eat my dessert, because I might not be here tomorrow to enjoy it.’ You have to be very sensitive to your patients, your clients. You have to know their sense of humor or at least 90 percent of the time guess what kind of humor (to use).” 

Learn more about TEDx Normal, scheduled for Oct. 27 in Normal. You can hear the TED Radio Hour on Sundays (6 a.m. and 10 a.m.) on GLT.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.