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Does laughter have healing properties?

When was the last time you had a really good laugh? If you’re having trouble remembering, close your eyes and think of something funny that happened to you recently or that you might have witnessed. Do it right now. Happy to wait for you to come back…

What happened? You might have noticed some or all of the following:

  • Your face broke out into a gentle smile.
  • Your eyes crinkled up as they do when you smile.
  • You may have had a warm feeling in your body.
  • You may have taken a deep breath at the same time.

Check how you’re feeling: you may actually be feeling happier. Perhaps you’re feeling sad because you miss what you have just remembered. The bottom line is that a smile and, hopefully, a giggle are only a memory away. But there’s also a lot more happening underneath that experience than you might have noticed. Recent research by Lee S. Berk of Loma Linda University (Berk: 2006) suggests that the mere anticipation of “mirthful laughter” boosts our feel-good hormones (endorphins) by almost 30 per cent. The good news is, even if you didn’t understand a joke you just heard, the mere anticipation that it might be funny is enough to give your spirits a boost.

Endorphins are the same feel-good hormones that are produced when you exercise, engage in sexual intercourse and, of course, eat chocolate. The added advantage of getting an endorphin hit from laughing, as opposed to eating chocolate, is laughing burns calories at the same time. Some researchers claim 10 to 15 minutes of laughter can burn 50 calories (Gottlieb: 2005). I suppose if you combined eating chocolate and laughing at the same time (assuming you didn’t choke) you could balance out the calories.

If you had managed a giggle at the thought of it, you would have also experienced a drop in your blood levels of cortisol, adrenaline and dopac, all hormones that increase when you’re under stress. Laughter functions as a great safety valve so you can release the harmful buildup of these hormones; at the same time, it gives you a fresh perspective on a situation.

But there are other therapeutic benefits from laughter. Research has accelerated in this area over the past 20 years and the evidence is building up to support how good laughter is for you.

 

Happy hearts

Laughter increases blood flow by more than 20 per cent, with this positive effect lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. So you could ditch the hot water bottle and just watch a funny movie to get the same effect. It has been observed that when we laugh, the endothelium — the inner lining of the artery walls — expands and keeps the artery walls fit and healthy (Eurekalert: 2005). This also has a positive effect on lowering blood pressure, meaning less strain on the heart.

Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Centre suggest a good sense of humour and the ability to laugh at stressful situations help offset the damaging effects of distressing emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety. They found that people with heart disease were 40 per cent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared with people of the same age without heart disease.

Psychologist William Fry (1979) showed that when you laugh for 20 seconds, it has the same effect as three minutes of working out on a rowing machine. That’s great news if you can’t get to the gym; just laugh away and you’re giving your heart a great workout.

 

Diabetes prevention

It has been found that emotions such as anger, sadness and fear elevate blood glucose levels (Surwit: 1993). A two-day experiment was performed with 19 patients who had type 2 diabetes and were not receiving insulin. On both days, they consumed the same meal. On the first day, they endured a monotonous lecture without any humorous content for 40 minutes. On the second day, as part of a 1000-strong audience they listened to 40 minutes of a program called Manzai, a Japanese comedy.

They found that participants experienced lower blood sugar levels after listening to the comedy. It was thought that glucose use was increased by the muscle action involved in laughing. However, they also believed this result was from laughter’s ability to suppress blood sugar elevation (Takahashi: 2003). With reported cases of diabetes more than doubling since the late 90s, introducing some laughter at the dinner table may not be as silly as it sounds.

Laughter is not a replacement for regular insulin or other medication, but it may well change your experience of life-threatening conditions.

 

Giggle for immunity

Dr Lee Berk of Loma Linda University has been studying the effects of laughter on the body’s ability to fight infection. Laughter boosts the immune system by raising levels of natural killer cells, gamma-interferon and B-cells, which produce the antibodies to fight disease. Researchers have also observed that laughter increases the production of lymphocytes, also known as T cells, as well as a specific increase in IgA (immunoglobulin A), which helps fights infections like colds and flus. The most exciting finding was that there was a sustained impact on the immune system that lasted until the next day, providing some form of ongoing immune system boost.

This explains why we tend to get more colds and flus when we’re feeling stressed and burdened by life, as we’re actively suppressing our immune systems. So the next time you find yourself in bed with a hot lemon and honey drink, you might want to order in a funny video as well — it certainly won’t hurt.

 

Depression and anxiety

If there’s one aspect of health in which you might have already experienced the benefits of laughter it’s probably in helping you feel better when life gets you down. Laughter has a positive effect on mood. There has been a lot of research into how laughter impacts on thoughts and feelings.

When you laugh, the levels of dopamine increase in your body. There’s also a euphoric effect from increased endorphin levels. Dopamine assists us to manage our moods and helps us feel better. Dr William Fry, until recently was Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Stanford University, has spent more than 30 years studying laughter. (Did you know the official name of the study of laugher is gelotology? Could be a useful clue for your next game of Trivia.) He refers to laughter as internal jogging, providing an aerobic workout for the entire body.

Dr Fry found that children laugh about 300 times a day, while adults might laugh about 17 times a day. This is a significant discrepancy and, though these findings have been debated, it does seem that kids are able to laugh more often and at more things than are adults. The lesson? Develop a more playful attitude to life and practise laughing. Practice makes us better at most things, including laughing. People often talk about the contagiousness of laughter. It’s believed that humans actually have an auditory laugh detector, a neural circuit in the brain that specifically detects laughter. Once triggered, the laugh detector activates a laughter generator (another circuit in the brain) that causes us to laugh more.

 

Laughter and love

Laughter and humour are attractive in others. In a study conducted by Robert Provine in 1996, he found that women were 62 per cent more likely to mention laughter in their personal newspaper advertisements. It seems women were more likely to seek out a partner with a sense of humour and men seemed only too happy to offer it. Provine also found that women laughed 126 per cent more than men. So it boils down to the fact that men are happy to provide the humour and women provide the laughter. There are many theories as to why this has occurred, but whatever the cause, it’s a state of happy balance for our species.

 

Pain management

Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of An Illness, discusses how laughter helped him manage the painful autoimmune condition ankylosing spondylitis, which mainly affects the spine. A section of the book was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1979. There were hundreds of letters from doctors about the article reflecting the view that “no medication that they could give their patients was as potent as the state of mind that a patient brings to his or her own illness”. In this sense, they said, “The most valuable service a physician can provide to a patient is helping them to maximise their own recuperative and healing potentialities.” (Cousins; 1979)

Which is exactly what Cousins did. By watching funny videos in 20-minute bursts, Cousins marshalled his own body’s pain-relieving endorphins to provide him with up to two hours of pain-free sleep at a time. It’s now well documented that the endorphins produced when you laugh have a powerful pain-relieving effect. In fact, the body’s naturally produced endorphins are as potent as pharmaceutical opioids in their pain-relieving effect.

 

Laughter and the health system

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of the non-fatal burden of disease and injury in Australia, exceeded only by cancer and cardiovascular disease as part of the total Australian disease burden in 2003. Dementia is the greatest single contributor to the burden of disease caused by disability at older ages, with an estimated 171,000 Australians over the age of 65 dealing with dementia.

Hospital stays are up by 9 per cent in Australian public hospitals, with the private hospital system usage up by over 30 per cent. Over the past decade, our use of pharmaceutical medications has increased by 41 per cent. Four out of every 10 Australians have more than 50 medical services and visits in a year (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare: 2006).

If you don’t want to be part of these statistics, it might be time for you to become more involved in your health, if you aren’t already. Laughter is something we all have available to us. You don’t need a prescription and it won’t ever run out. Laughter may just be the antidote needed to cope with the increasing stress and health burden of living in Australia. Allowing more laughter into your life could prove to be the best investment you make in your health today.

With the increasing cost of private health insurance and medications to treat all manner of illness, it makes sense to make laughter part of your health investment strategy, whether you do it by yourself or with others. The rediscovery of laughter and its significant health benefits could be the one of the most important medical discoveries this century — and that’s no laughing matter.

 

Tips to bring more laughter into your life

  • Find other positive, outgoing, happy people to spend your time with.
  • Practise smiling — even when you fake a smile or laugh, your body will automatically feel better.
  • Practise smiling at others.
  • Yawn and stretch your jaw muscles. Laughter is a great antidote to grinding your teeth.
  • Compile your own personal library of humorous material that always makes you laugh. This could include DVDs, books, tapes and even feel-good inspirational cards. It will help you change your perspective.
  • Join or start a local laughter club.
  • Spend time playing with your pets and/or children. Play is a great way to bring on laughter.
  • Make a simple decision to have more fun.
  • Download screensavers that make you smile — with all the time we spend sitting in front of our computers, it seems logical to use some of this time to smile.
  • Avoid the news on television, radio and in the paper. If you can’t resist, finish with the cartoon section so you can have a hearty chuckle.
  • Try to increase your spontaneity in all things you do — this is the fastest way to a giggle.
  • Compile a memory journal of all the funny experiences you have had. This might include funny pictures, articles or cartoons that made you laugh or just mementos of a funny situation. These memories can return you to that funny moment. It’s a great project and you can continue to add to it. It’s a wonderful resource when you’re feeling low, guaranteed to immediately lift your spirits.
  • Volunteer at a local charity. This can be a way to gain greater appreciation for what you have in your life and a smile usually follows gratitude.
  • Take 30 minutes every day and live it as if it was the last 30 minutes of your life — that sure puts things into focus.
  • Discover what makes you happy and keep doing it.

 

Happy thoughts

  • “The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease.” — Voltaire
  • “The older you get, the tougher it is to lose weight, because by then your body and your fat are really good friends.” — Bob Hope
  • “Good humour is one of the best articles of dress one can wear in society.” — William Thackeray
  • “I have a new philosophy. I’m going to dread only one day at a time.” — Charles Schultz
  • “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” — Henry Kissinger
  • “We do not stop playing because we are old: we grow old because we stop playing.” — Anonymous

 

References available on request.

 

Shirley Hicks is the founder and co-ordinator of Laughter Clubs NSW, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing the health benefits of laughter to the community. W: www.laughterclubsnsw.com.

 

 

 

 

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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