It’s been 40 years since Norman Cousins published his classic An Anatomy of an Illness, in which he documents curing himself with a high dose of vitamin C and a continuous stream of humorous films. Since then research has further established the medicinal benefits of laughter, helping everything from Alzheimer’s disease and allergies to backaches and muscle cramping.
Following one of his studies on the benefits of laughter, Dr. Michael Miller said he envisioned a time when physicians might recommend that everyone get 15 to 20 minutes of laughter in a day much like physicians recommend regular exercise. Noted laughter researcher Robert Provine commented in the documentary Laugh Out Loud, “Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!”
Following are six good reasons to laugh as much as you can:
1. Laughter reduces stress and regulates hormones.
“Laughter both helps shut down the release of cortisol, a harmful stress hormone, and releases endorphins, the brain chemicals known for their feel-good effect,” explains Courtney Mifsud in her article “Laughing and Crying: The Same Physical Release?” in Time magazine’s special edition, The Science of Laughter.
A hardy “ha ha” also stimulates circulation and relaxes your muscles, distributing a “chill out” message to all your biological systems and initiates the calming process. In a study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, salivary chromogranin A (CgA) levels were measured after a group watched 30 minutes of a comedy video and were found significantly lower, indicated that laughter may help relieve stress. Much like a good cry, a belly laugh is cathartic or cleansing, a physical and mental release of toxic emotions and chemicals.
2. Laughter improves cardiovascular functioning.
Laughing helps the heart in several ways. It can reduce cortisol and other stress hormones that are linked to higher blood pressure and increased inflammation. Like aerobic exercise, laughing changes the way we breathe, making our heart pump harder and increasing blood flow to the brain and body. A good chuckle improves the function of our blood vessels, protecting us from heart attacks and lowering our risk of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore used funny movies to gauge the effects of emotions on cardiovascular health and found that laughter can cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand, increasing blood flow.
3. Laughter boosts immunity.
Fighting off a cold? Heat up some tea and watch a comedy. It turns out laughing may boost our immune system, helping us to stave off viruses and bacterial infections. A study published in Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine found that laughing can improve activity of natural killer cells, which help us fight diseases. Low NK cell activity has been linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in persons with cancer and HIV disease.
“When a good belly laugh disrupts the respiratory system, you begin to breathe diaphragmatically to help the release of air,” explains Mifsud in her Time article. “As the diaphragm pumps lymphatic fluid through your system, lymph nodes filter out waste and trigger the production of white blood cells, which kill infected cells. This, in turn, strengthens the immune system.”
4. Laughter enriches relationships.
Although it’s not impossible to crack ourselves up, laughing mostly happens with other people. It’s a social activity and renders us vulnerable in a way that facilitates intimacy. In her Time article “Curing What Ails You,” Alice Park highlights a variety of laughter studies. I found the most fascinating experiment to be the one by Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill that demonstrated that couples who laugh together enjoy a tighter bond than those without humor.
She and a graduate student filmed 77 couples as they described how they met. Then they analyzed the videos to determine how much time the couples spent laughing together. Says Algoe, “People who spent more time laughing with their partner felt that they were more similar to their partner. We also found the more people laughed with their romantic partner, the more they felt they were supported by that person.”
Laughter is a helpful tool to manage conflict, let go of resentments, and push aside the inhibitions that prevent connection.
5. Increases emotional resiliency.
“Angels fly high because they take themselves lightly,” said G. K. Chesterton. Laughter adds some much-needed space between a stimulus and our emotions, allowing for a truer perspective. I can’t count the number of times I arrived at a work meeting or happy hour flustered and tense, my thoughts lost in ruminations. Then someone tells a good joke — one that engages my diaphragm — and suddenly I’ve walked away from the edge of panic and paranoia and can breathe. I see a path out from the harrowing situation I once fretted.
Humor not only adds a psychological buffer between a trigger and anxiety, it often applies color to our black-and-white thinking, presents solutions, and provides hope.
6. Relieves pain.
Finally, laughter serves as a powerful, natural anesthesia from pain. Much like an engaging conversation or a riveting novel, it distracts you from what hurts. Laughing also produces an endorphin-mediated opiate effect that raises your pain threshold.
Researchers from the University of Oxford conducted a series of six experimental studies in both the laboratory, where participants watched humor videos — episodes of “South Park,” “The Simpsons,” and “Friends” — and stage performances of comedians, testing change in pain threshold. Their results showed that the pain thresholds were significantly higher after laughter than in the control groups. The participants who watched humorous videos or listened to comedians felt less pain later.