Laugh Your Way to Health
by Cindie Leonard
In Jimmy Buffett’s famous song, “Changes in Latitudes,” a key line in the chorus is: “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” This verse in this fun and somewhat philosophical song is supported by scientific research. Our mental health is positively enhanced by laughter.
Using laughter as medicine is not a new concept. As early as the 14th Century, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville used humor therapy to aid recovery from surgery. He wrote: “Let the surgeon take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient’s life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him and by having someone tell him jokes.” In the 1930s U.S. hospitals began to bring in clowns to cheer children hospitalized with polio. In 1972, the Gesundheit Institute (of Patch Adams fame) was founded to bring “fun, friendship, and the joy of service back into health care.”
Norman Cousins calls laughter “internal jogging.” Cousins had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, an experience that had led him to question Western medicine. Cousins found the treatments suggested by his doctors to be totally lacking, so he checked himself out of the hospital and checked into a hotel. From here on, he literally laughed himself back to health. He immersed himself in only funny movies and television shows. He enjoyed every one of the Charlie Chaplin movies, and watched “Candid Camera” episodes until his sides hurt, laughing. His illness disappeared. From this experience, he wrote an enlightening book, “Anatomy of an Illness.”
Even the Bible suggests that we keep a happy heart: “A cheerful heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit makes one sick.” Proverbs 17:22
Solid scientific research demonstrates that laughter offers the following benefits:
Lowering blood pressure
Strengthening cardiovascular functions
Reducing stress hormones
Increasing muscle flexion
Oxygenating the body by boosting the respiratory system
Boosting immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gammainterferon and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies.
Triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers
Producing a general sense of well-being.
Even anticipating laughter can enhance our biochemistry. In a novel experiment conducted at Loma Linda University, researchers studied a group of 16 healthy male volunteers. The participants were assigned to two groups. Blood was drawn from both groups four times during the event and three times afterward. The experiment group was told that they would be watching a humorous video. The control group was not. The findings were astounding. The experiment group showed not only a decrease in stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac,) but also an increase in beta-endorphins (chemicals that alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (which boosts immunity.)
Dr. Lee Berk, the team’s lead researcher, sums up the study: “Our findings lead us to believe that by seeking out positive experiences that make us laugh we can do a lot with our physiology to stay well.”
In an earlier study conducted by Dr. Berk and her team, the experimental group watched a humorous video. Blood samples were measured on both the experimental group (that watched the humorous video) and a control group (that did not watch the video.) The results were similar to the above experiment showing positive biochemical changes by those who watched the funny video. In addition, this study also demonstrated the positive physiological changes that occur after a session of laughter. Dr. Berk states: “The physiological effects of a single one-hour session viewing a humorous video appear to last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours in different individuals.”
Interestingly, one can exercise both mind and body is a class called “laughter yoga.” This trend has been active in India and China for years and is now part of a growing trend in the United States. The students are re-learning something children already know instinctively — that laughter makes you feel better. Barb Fisher, a certified laughter yoga teacher, states that “kids laugh about 400 times a day, and adults only about 15…Laughter is a gift that has been given to us to make us feel better.”
Laughter is proving to be a tool to protect ourselves from heart disease. Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, sums up the benefits of laughter: “We don’t know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack…The ability to laugh — either naturally or as learned behavior may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer.”
Research into the positive effects of laughter is generating a global interest into humor and well-being. The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor sites this official definition of Therapeutic Humor: “Any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations…This intervention may enhance health or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social or spiritual.”
How many other therapies can you think of that are effective, free, and have no known negative effects?
“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” e.e. cummings
American Psychological Society (2008, April 10). Anticipating a Laugh Reduces Our Stress Hormones.
Berk LS, Felten DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J. Modulation of Neuroimmune Parameters During the Eustress of Humor-Associated Mirthful Laughter. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, March 2001.
University of Michigan Health System (2008, May 6). Laugh Your Way To Wellness With Yoga Trend. ScienceDaily.
About the author
Cindie Leonard has a Master’s degree in Psychology and specializes in research (namely psychoneuroimmunology), enjoys savoring time with family and friends, spoiling her pets, travel, beaches, cavorting around San Diego, volunteering at Torrey Pines State Reserve, and working on perfecting the art of “il dolce far niente.”