Laughter is the best medicine, or so goes the age-old adage. And it just so happens there is scientific evidence that backs it up. Research shows that laughing in the face of your daily woes can improve your mental and physical well-being?
But before we get into the science, how the heck did we get so serious? When did we “unlearn” laughing and trade in our happy faces for serious scowls?
Close your eyes and drift back to visions of your childhood – long hours at the beach playing with friends, riding bikes around the neighbourhood til dark, and indulging at will in the joy of a deep down belly laugh.
Slowly and without notice, your youthful silliness gave way to stodgy adult silence. You grew up, and with it came grown-up responsibilities. Moments of folly and jolly became far and few between as the responsibilities of adult life got in the way.
But did you know that reclaiming your joie-de-rire not only lifts your spirits but may also help boost your body’s health defenses?
Laughter and the Science of Silly
Laughter and blood pressure
Laughter has been shown to exert a positive influence on your cardiovascular system. For example, emotions are known to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system which increase both heart rate and blood pressure.
In a study that exposed three groups of men to a humorous, sad, or neutral movie, only the sad movie caused a rise in blood pressure while the blood pressure in participants watching the humorous movie remained stable. The authors concluded that a humorous stimulus may help buffer the rise in blood pressure. Not a bad side effect of having a bit of fun, especially if you’ve had, or are at risk for a heart attack.
Laughter and immune function
Researchers at Loma Linda University in California exposed 52 men to a humorous video for one hour.
Blood samples taken before, during, and after revealed increases in protective natural killer cell activity and immunoglobulins, with some of these beneficial effects lasting as long as 12 hours after the intervention.
The authors concluded that laughter may have important benefits for the immune system and should be recommended in conjunction with other therapies.
Laughter and psychological well-being
According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression.
That’s a grim statistic, but the good news is that studies have shown both humorous stimuli and a healthy sense of humour are associated with lower levels of depression, loneliness, and stress and higher levels of self-esteem and quality of life.
In a study of 48 depressed geriatric patients and 61 age-matched controls, participants exposed to four weekly laughter groups scored significantly lower on the Geriatric Depression Scale and had a better Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index score compared to those in the control group.
In another study, 60 depressed geriatric women were randomly assigned to a laughter yoga group, an exercise group, or a control group. Similar improvements in mood were observed in the laughter yoga and exercise groups compared to the control group. Moreover, the laughter yoga group scored better than the other groups on the Life Satisfaction Scale.
In a 2010 review, Fonzi and colleagues summarised the effects of laughter on depression, finding that 1) laughter improves mood directly and moderates negative consequences of stressful events on mental well-being; 2) laughter stimulates regions of the brain involved in the development of depression and normalises dysfunction of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical system; and 3) laughter has positive effects on social relationships and physical health which can help depressed people to face the disease.
Laughter, diabetes, and blood sugar levels
For people with diabetes, healthy eating, regular activity, medication, and education are the cornerstones of blood sugar management. But it seems that a healthy dose of laughter may be just what the doctor ordered.
Japanese researchers studied the effects of laughter on after meal blood glucose levels. Participants with type 2 diabetes ate a 2100 kJ (500 calories) meal followed by an intentionally boring 40-minute lecture, with blood glucose levels measured two hours later.
This was repeated on a different day but instead with a comedy show of the same duration. Blood glucose levels after the “boring” intervention were 6.8 mmol/L,whereas blood glucose levels only rose to 4.3 mmol/L after the laughter treatment.
These findings suggest that a side dish of laughter may help moderate the post-meal increase in blood glucose levels.
Laughter and diabetic nephropathy
In separate report based on the same study, the comedy show attendees also experienced desirable reductions in prorenin – an early warning sign for diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease) – and favourable changes in its associated genetic markers.
In a related study, the same researchers observed improvements in the renin-angiotensinogen system (linked to blood pressure and diabetes) and blood prorenin levels of type 2 diabetic participants receiving six months of laughter therapy.
The findings from these two studies suggest that both short and long-term laughter treatments may help stave off diabetic nephropathy.
Though the physical and mental health benefits of laughter seem self-evident, it is important to note that research results can be influenced by the number of participants, gender, their initial health status, choice of tests used to measure physical and mental health, and less obvious influences like culture.
More studies are needed to conclusively determine the short and long-term health benefits for both healthy people and those with diseases.
Finding your funny bone
Whilst scientists squabble over the details, there’s no denying a good gut-wrenching guffaw feels great! Sense of humour is subjective, and what’s funny to you may not be to someone else.
No matter what your tastes, these 8 quick tips can help fire up your funny bone and inject a bit of levity into your life:
1) Net effect – YouTube is a limitless source of funny videos. Search for your favourite comedians. Search Google for joke websites, misquoted song lyrics, or funny photos. Whatever trips your trigger, bookmark the sites so you can come back and have a laugh at any time!
2) Good news – If you receive the newspaper in the morning, skip the doom and gloom headlines and go straight to the cartoons page. Clip out your favourites and stick them on the fridge for a daily chuckle.
3) Mirthful movies – watch comedies with your favourite funny actors. With online services like Netflix readily available, you can watch them again and again, kind of like your own personal laughter library.
4) Radio gaga – listen to your favourite radio personalities in the morning on your way to work (not venom-tainted talk radio!). If you want to listen to the program again, most radio stations now make broadcasts available for download on their websites.
5) Goofy games – host a game night with friends, but keep it non-competitive in nature. Quirky games like Twister and Pictionary can draw hoots and howls even from the most stone-faced people.
6) Out on the town – do something quirky and out of character and have a laugh at your own expense. Try ten pin bowling, dodgem cars (bumper cars in the US), miniature golf, or sing karaoke (badly!) – and perhaps a trip to the comedy club before heading home!
7) Happy virus – if humour really is infectious, then keep positive, uplifting, and funny friends close at hand – and the social contact is good for your spirit, too!
8) Book ‘em Dano – visit your local library and ask the service staff to help you locate humorous books.
Do you need a reason to laugh?
What about laughing for no good reason whatsoever? Is it possible to “fake it til you make it” and still reap the health benefits?
Dr. Madan Kataria, founder Laughter Yoga (laughteryoga.org), seems to think so. “Your body cannot differentiate between acted and genuine laughter. Both produce the same happy chemistry.”
Unlike physical yoga for your muscles and joints, Laughter Yoga is a relaxed social experience where you get together in a group and do interactive chants and hand-clapping, act out silly hypothetical scenarios, imitate animals such as waddling penguins, or blow up your cheeks like a puffer fish – the possibilities are limitless! The child-like playfulness and simulated laughter which accompanies the exercises soon give way to very real, contagious laughter.
What started off in 1995 as five people laughing for no reason in a park in India has since turned into a global phenomenon. There are now about 8000 laughter yoga clubs in 100 countries.
According to Bronwyn Roberts, Chief Happiness Officer at Let’s Laugh (www.letslaugh.com.au) in Victoria, Australia, “the laughter movement is fast becoming as popular and well-respected as yoga and meditation.”
Classes are easily accessible and open to everyone. “Entry is free to most community laughter clubs, though some leaders may charge a small fee to cover the cost of the venue hire,” says Bronwyn. “And all ages are welcome. In my community group, our youngest participant was 4 years old and the oldest was 87.”
Like anything we do in life, laughter is a habit – the more you practice, the easier it becomes and the more relaxed you feel.
“It’s about being entirely in the moment, not thinking about your problems or things you have to do, or even how silly you feel, but allowing yourself and your mind time to play, to release your inner child and give you some much needed exercise,” adds Bronwyn.
In a world that takes itself far too serious, that’s certainly something we could all use!