The ever-ironic and witty Mark Twain once said:
“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
Little did he know how wise and truly ahead of his time that he was. Scientists and doctors around the world today are now finding evidence that proves that laughter can do much more than simply bring on a smile.
Studies now support long-held beliefs that a sense of humor not only sustains good health, but can help improve the health of the seriously ill.
“The old saying that ‘laughter is the best medicine,’ appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart,” says Michael Miller, director of The Center for Preventative Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“We don’t know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with the impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels.”
“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,” says Miller.
“We know that exercise, not just smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.”
Additionally, researchers for The American Heart Association found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations when compared to people the same age without heart disease.
Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, was considered a pioneer in the study of not just how laughter can heal a depressed mood, but a depressed immune system as well.
When diagnosed with an illness that gave him grave odds of survival, he did some research of his own. After learning how stress can play a negative role in a person’s health, leading to diseases like cancer and heart disease, he figured the reverse must also be true.
Cousins figured the best anti-stressor was not only happiness, but an abundance of laughter. He proceeded to surround himself with as much humor as he could find, reading funny stories, books and watching old Marx Brothers films.
He found that when he laughed a great deal two hours before bedtime, he no longer needed painkillers.
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he commented.
Cousins eventually beat 550 to one odds, lived another 20 years, and credits laughter as the prescription that literally gave him back his life.
“Laughter may or may not activate the endorphins or enhance respiration, as some medical researchers contend. What seems clear, however, is that laughter is an antidote to apprehension and panic… It creates a mood in which other positive emotions can be put to work too,” Cousins said.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. In his article “Laugh If This Is a Joke,” published in the Journal of the AMA, Swedish researcher Lars Ljungdahl concluded:
“A humor therapy program can increase the quality of life for patients with chronic problems and laughter has an immediate symptom-relieving effect for these patients, an effect that is potentiated when laughter is induced regularly over a period of time.”
Research professor Lee Bark and endocrinologist Stanley Tan of California’s Loma Linda University Medical Center are two of medical science’s leaders when it comes to figuring out how laughter can play a positive role on a person’s physiology.
In a study that involved having subjects watch a solid hour of funny videos, they took blood samples at 10-minute intervals before, during, and after the subjects laughed. Their findings showed that humor and exercise trigger similar physiological responses in the form of good hormones like endorphins with the added benefit of decreased levels of stress hormones.
“There really is something to this idea that one’s frame of mind has an impact on the body’s health system,” says Dr. Paul McGee, a New Jersey psychologist who for 20 years has studied how laughter affects health.
McGee—who says that if you can manage your mood, you can have better health—summarizes laughter’s health benefits in the following ways:
Stress Hormones are Reduced: Four major hormones associated with stress are known to become reduced as a result of laughing more: dopac, cortisol, epinephrine, and the growth hormone.
Enhancement of the Immune System: Clinical studies have proven that laughter strengthens the immune system.
Cardiac Exercise and Muscle Relaxation: Laughter causes the muscles in the belly to relax, giving the belly an internal jog. Laughter also provides great cardiac conditioning and is especially good for those unable to exercise.
Reduction of Pain: Laughing and a good sense of humor help people in pain to at least temporarily forget about their aches and pains.
Respiratory Benefits: Laughing helps the lungs release more air which leads to a cleansing effect, similar to that of deep breathing. This is especially beneficial to patients with emphysema and other respiratory ailments.
“It’s already been suggested that if you make people laugh, they don’t get as anxious, deal better with pain, and do better in the hospital,” says cancer researcher Dr. Margaret Stuber, professor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.
“In the future, watching humorous videos could become a standard component during some medical procedures.”
Heather and Mark, first-time parents of three-month-old twins, have felt overwhelmed since their kids were born. “I know that if I didn’t laugh when things seemed crazy that I would just constantly cry,” said Heather, who claims she’s had only three hours of sleep tops since their twins were born.
Mark said he has always been able to get through really difficult times due to his sense of humor. He credits this to his father, who often made him and his brothers laugh when they were young.
“I try to make my wife see the funny side of things whenever she looks really stressed, which these days, is about 20 times a day,” he said.
“Just the other night, both babies were crying, and my wife started to cry as well because she was so overwhelmed. I then got up and began to do what I call my ‘silly disco dance,’ which managed to cheer her up and get her laughing right away.”
Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the Pediatric Pain Program at The Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, California, says, “If you’re laughing, you feel better in general. And since it elevates your mood, it should do something physically to your body to create that feeling of well-being.”
Children seem to innately know the benefits of seeing and enjoying the humor in everyday life.
The average child has been known to laugh about 400 times a day, with adults bursting into either small or big gales of laughter only 14 times per day.
Scientists theorize that adults probably laugh less because they act too grown-up and have lost their ability to play.
“One of the gifts you can give your child is a willingness to be playful and to laugh with your child,” says Patty Wooten, owner of “Jest for the Health of It!” a consulting business that helps health and social service professionals develop therapeutic humor programs, “Because if you’re serious and somber, the child picks up that that’s what’s expected.”
Anna, who has three boys under the age of six, one who has a severe physical disability, says that her kids not only laugh a lot, but have given her the best laughs of her life, especially on her worst days.
“The other day my husband picked me up from work in his car and we went together to pick up my middle son from daycare,” said Anna. “All three of my kids were whining for one thing or another and the traffic was really bad. Finally I turned around and yelled at them to be quiet and told them they were driving me crazy.”
“It was then that my four-year-old very plainly said, ‘But mommy, you’re not driving, Daddy’s driving! We’re driving him crazy.’”
Anna says she and her husband started laughing hysterically and laughed a lot for literally the next three days. “It was the hardest laugh I had had in a real long time,” she says. “We had been having a real bad couple of weeks and that silly thing my son said really made everything a whole lot better and lighter around the house.”
Dr. Stuber, who also is heading the study RX Laughter, which researches the real benefits that laughter can play in improving children’s health, recommends that all parents can learn something from their child’s innate ability to laugh.
“Try to laugh with your child. Use laughter to get out of a confrontational moment. It will make both of you feel better. Laughter may indeed be the best medicine.”
- >> Try to see the humor in everyday experiences, especially when they don’t seem very laughable (bad traffic, waiting in long lines, etc.). Make jokes instead of complaining.
- >> Practice acting silly with your kids until it becomes a natural part of your life. Not only will they be happier, but you will be happier and healthier too.
- >> Remember to listen to jokes when people want to share them, and don’t be afraid to laugh out loud!
- >> Watch funny shows, movies, and read humorous stories and books. Not all entertainment has to be serious. Turn off the news and turn on a comedy.
- >> Surround yourself with upbeat people with a sense of humor. Happiness is as contagious as a bad cold.
- >> Remember the following words of comedian Groucho Marx: “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger