We are rife with involuntary reactions. We know why we sneeze. We know why we cough. We know why we blink our eyes. But we don’t really know why we laugh.
Sense of humor is personal but everyone has one.
We weren’t built with extraneous physiological processes; everything our bodies do has a purpose. So while we may not know why we laugh, we now know that doing so contributes to physical and emotional health.
In the 1970s, Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, published his story of laughter as medicine in The New England Journal of Medicine. He subsequently published books on the subject of mind-body healing: Anatomy of an Illness, Head First, and Mind Over Illness. In these, he explores his experience of having been diagnosed with life-threatening heart disease in 1964 for which he self-treated with massive doses of vitamin C and laughter. (Cousins died in 1990.) His story spurred scientific research into the physiology of laughter–gelotology. Many studies have now shown that laughter does, in fact, promote wellness.
The results are complex and fascinating.
Laughter appears to occur more frequently and has a greater physical impact when it occurs in a group setting. Laughing alone is good but laughing with others is even better. The physical act of laughing causes the release of endorphins–neurotransmitters that moderate pain and stress with an opiate effect.
In a controlled study, pain threshold was significantly higher after laughter than without. Even anticipation of the prospect of “mirthful laughter” reduces stress hormone levels and increases endorphins and human growth hormone (which contributes to optimizing immunity).
A study of high-risk diabetics found that:
“the addition of an adjunct therapeutic mirthful laughter Rx (a potential modulator of positive mood state) to standard diabetes care may lower stress and inflammatory response and increase ‘good’ cholesterol levels. The authors conclude that mirthful laughter may thus lower the risk of cardiovascular disease associated with diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome.”
The benefits of laughter don’t stop there.
The physical act of laughter–not just a chuckle, but real, belly-type laughter–is exercise. If you’ve ever had one of those episodes (and we certainly hope that you have) in which you laugh so hard that you cry and can’t breathe, you know that you could be a little sore afterward. Without thinking, the act of laughing promotes various physical activities:
- Laughter dilates blood vessels, improving circulation, and exercises abdominal, facial, and other muscle groups.
- The release of growth hormone and dopamine in the brain bring a sense of euphoria and happiness–a high that improves not only mood but supports immune function.
- With the release of hormones and neurotransmitters during and following a bout of laughter, blood sugar and cholesterol levels are reduced. These effects can last for days, especially if laughter is a regular part of your life.
- With the highs come the lows–in a good way: improved blood flow and body nourishment, the reduction of stress and pain, and emotional contentment are followed by greater relaxation and better sleep quality.
Science was loth to investigate the phenomenon of laughter until fairly recently. Unlike other involuntary response, it seemed to be not worth too much study–like yawning. In a study published in the journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada, William Strean reported on this position in the medical and scientific communities and found the research sorely and ashamedly lacking:
“With increasing recognition, one might expect that there would be growing application of laughter and humour for their complementary and alternative medical benefits. (It should be noted that laughter is an adjunct to and not a replacement for accepted therapies.) They are easy to prescribe and there are no substantial concerns with respect to dose, side effects, or allergies. It seems, however, that the medical community has been reluctant to embrace and support laughter for health…randomized controlled clinical trials have not been conducted validating the therapeutic efficacy of laughter. Benefits, however, have been reported in geriatrics, oncology, critical care, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care, and general patient care. These and other reports constitute sufficient substantiation to support what is experientially evident—laughter and humour are therapeutic allies in healing…Overall, the arguments against using laughter as an intervention appear to be both unduly cautious and based on the desire for more evidence…It might be time to start giving more credence to positive views about laughter, such as that laughter might reduce stress and improve natural killer cell activity. As low natural killer cell activity is linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in those with cancer or HIV disease, laughter might be a useful cognitive-behavioural intervention. “
There is a difference between humor and laughter.
In 1995, someone had the brilliant idea to use laughter as real therapy. Laughter yoga and laughter therapy emerged as structured programs to incite laughter in a group therapy context, stimulating and encouraging its exercise. These practices have proven helpful and supportive to many who have tried it, however, humor and laughter are not the same thing. In laughter yoga, laughter is promoted without humor–put on a happy face. Because it is forced and not spontaneous, its benefits are not as profound as laughter occurring as the natural involuntary response to something you find funny.
The pain study at Oxford University postulated that group laughter is a means by which social bonding takes place. Most people are attracted to others that make them laugh or, at least, with whom they can share a laugh. This foundation provides common ground with a sense of belonging and cooperation–crucial for the survival of our species. We share this gift of laughter with other primates.
It seems apt that we should end with a joke.
A grasshopper walks into a bar.
The bartender looks at him and says, “Hey, we got a drink named after you!
The grasshopper replies, “You got a drink named ‘Steve’?!”
“Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” – Charlie Chaplin