Our look at the health benefits of laughter will start with a couple of quotes on the subject.
The first is from Henry Ward Beecher and says that, "Mirth is God's medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it." The second is an old Irish proverb that says, "A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book."
Both quotations are right on the money. Laughter, mirth, happiness and joy are all related in varying degrees and all bestow tremendous health benefits.
But how do we laugh when we don't feel well, when we're depressed, when we're in pain, when we're worried or stressed out? We can't make ourselves laugh, or can we?
Are we healthy because we are of good humor and quick to laugh or do we get sick because we lose our sense of humor and ability to laugh?
Of course the question itself is too simplistic since a myriad of things contribute to our health while all it takes is one or two adverse occurrences to destroy our health.
But there is overwhelming evidence that there are health benefits of laughter and good humor. They don't say "Laughter is the best medicine" for no reason.
Exactly what happens in our brain and throughout our bodies when we laugh that leads the professionals to think laughter is really good for us?
Cutting to the chase, clinical researchers have shown several health benefits of laughter throughout our body.
Good humored people generally have blood vessels that contract and expand easily; they are elastic.
It's possible that no one has researched the health benefits of laughter and written more on the subject than Dr. William Fry. Dr. Fry is a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Stanford University's School of Medicine and may be the undisputed leader in therapeutic humor over the last 50 years
Way back in 1971, Dr. Fry showed how laughter increases the heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen consumption, and works the muscles in the face and stomach. After the laughter, these levels drop, providing a relaxation response.
Given the relationship between muscle activity and laughter it should be no surprise that fitness experts compare laughter to a mild workout. It turns out that the muscle activity is not just confined to facial muscles; muscles throughout the whole body are stretched.
Fitness experts confirm Dr. Fry's conclusion that the health benefits of laughter lie in its ability to increase pulse and blood pressure, making breathing easier and thus making more oxygen available to body tissue.
Numerous researchers have taken on the question of how laughter affects the immune system.
Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley Tan, both of Loma Linda University in California have demonstrated the health benefits of laughter by proving that it lowers cortisol levels in blood serum, and increases the number of immune T-cells and natural killer cells.
Stress induces the adrenal glands to release cortico steroids and their continuous presence has an immunosuppressive effect.
Laughter can mitigate the harmful effects of cortisol which was reported by Drs. Tan, Berk and Fry in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 298(1989):390-396; "Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter".
Barry Bittman, a neurologist and researcher in how emotions affect the immune system conducted studies that validated the Berk and Tan findings.
He took the blood of patients and analyzed it before, during and after watching a humorous video.
<p>The tests found significant boosts to immune function, including higher levels of anti-bodies and natural killer cells. Their immune systems stay in an upregulated state into the next day, 12 hours later.
There are many other documented health benefits of laughter including lowering of blood sugar levels, pain control, improved sleep and relaxation and better respiratory system performance.
How does something as simple as laughter trigger all these health benefits? The short answer is that not all the experts are in agreement about what laughter does. Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, seems a bit skeptical.
His concern is that many of the past studies cited as evidence for the health benefits of laughter were small and not conducted very well. He claims many researchers involved were biased; going into the study wanting to prove that laughter has benefits. The problem, as he sees it, is that with laughter research it's very hard to distinguish cause and effect.
So then how do we explain the health benefits of laughter cited in the prior studies?
In a word, endorphins. These are brain chemicals, produced by the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland during hard exercise, excitement or sexual climax. The word is a combination of "endo" and "orphin", meaning a morphine like substance originating within the body.
Pain, danger or numerous other forms of stress trigger nerve impulses. When these impulses or signals, reach the spinal cord, endorphins are released which prevent nerve cells from releasing more pain signals.
It is endorphins that allow someone with serious injuries or even battle wounds to experience no immediate pain and even feel a sense of power and control over themselves which allows them to persist with activity for an extended time.
There are numerous high profile cases where the health benefits of laughter have healed or contributed to healing some very serious illnesses.
Norman Cousins comes readily to mind. Norman Cousins was a journalist, professor and author who died of heart failure on November of 1990 at the age of 75.
In spite of his work promoting liberal causes and world peace, and being managing editor of the New York Post and editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review, Cousins today is mostly known for his illnesses.
Throughout his adult life, he battled heart disease which he fought with massive doses of vitamin C and laughter. Later he was diagnosed with a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, a painful inflammatory disease that attacks the spine and hip joints.
Cousins documented his treatment in a book, "Anatomy of an Illness", later made into a movie of the same name, starring Ed Asner. Once again, he turned to mega-doses of Vitamin C and his belief in the health benefits of laughter. He made heavy use of laugh inducing Marx brothers comedy films.
Click on the link below to pick up a DVD of the movie from Amazon.com.
According to Cousins, ten minutes of hardy laughter would give him two hours of pain free sleep. There's those endorphins at work again.
Another high profile healer that uses humor and laughter is Hunter Campbell "Patch" Adams. Doctor Adams is one of the most interesting and thought provoking people in medicine today. He is currently based in Urbana, Illinois, where he practices a different health care model, not funded by insurance policies, no payments or formal facilities.
His work is largely in collaboration with the Gesundheit! institute, founded in 1972, based near Hillsboro in West Virginia where over 15,000 patients have been treated to date. The Institute's vision is to revolutionize health care delivery by replacing greed and competition in healthcare with generosity and compassion.
One of the continued missions of the Gesundheit Institute involves the concept of Humanitarian clowning; among other things, Dr. Adams is a professional clown. The project uses the theme of laughter as an integral element of effective doctoral care.
A 1998 feature film titled, "Patch Adams", starring Robin Williams as "Patch" was based on the life and approach to health of the title character. It's worth viewing; just click the link below for the DVD.
Before leaving, there are several organizations among many that are worthy of mention. Their work is either funding or promoting knowledge or pushing research in the area of therapeutic laughter. Two of them are mentioned below.
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor
There is the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, founded in 1987 by a Registered Nurse, Alison L. Crane.
The Association is a non-profit professional organization that advances the understanding and application of humor and laughter for their positive benefits. From their website, we read...
"AATH provides and disseminates information about applied and therapeutic humor through conferences, publications, a website, and networking to a community from a wide variety of clinical, corporate, and classroom settings.
Humor and laughter are used to enhance work performance, support learning, improve health and as a coping tool. AATH’s pillar communities include Health & Wellness, Seniors & Aging, Education, Spirituality & Faith Communities, and Business."
Links to about 40 other organizations that explore therapeutic humor and laughter are also provided by their website.
The World Laughter Tour, Inc.
While not really falling into our traditional view of a scientific research institute, the World Laughter Tour (WLT) is very focused on researching the health benefits of laughter as a therapy.
It was founded on the principle that laughter and joy can contribute to health and peace in the world and has a unique approach to therapeutic laughter, namely laughter clubs.
The "Tour" was launched in July 1998 by psychologist Steve Wilson and Nurse Karyn Buxman while on sabbatical in India to experience the Indian laugh clubs.
Their website has a rich content of workshops, training, news and events, videos, special projects and so much more. Want to learn how to participate in a laugh club or even start one yourself? This is the place.
The WLT workshops are approved for continuing education credits
for nurses, social workers, activity therapists, and case managers. At
the beginning of 2010, there were over 5000 Certified Laughter Leaders
(CLLs). These are people who have completed a comprehensive training
program, attended workshops and earned the right to become a CLL.
Laughter clubs, of which there are over 2000 worldwide, are typically led by one of the CLL's.
A few paragraphs can't do the WLT justice; this is one that we have to experience for ourselves. It is one more validation that the health benefits of laughter are real. Check it out.
In closing out this page, we leave with a question. What happened to laughter?
One of the researches we read about for this article reported that "the average kindergarten student laughs 300 times a day. Yet, adults average just 17 laughs a day. Why the difference? Are we too uptight, too tense, too much gloom and doom on TV news shows? Do we take life too seriously?
If there really are health benefits of laughter, isn't it time we learned how to relax? We don't stop laughing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop laughing." Interesting conclusion, maybe it's true.
Finally, as reported by CNN.com on October 7th, 2002, the world's funniest joke has been found. According to Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the LaughLab at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain; research they conducted attracted more than 40,000 jokes and almost two million ratings.
And the "World's Funniest Joke" is...
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.
He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"
Well, it made me laugh.
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