Laughter is the best medicine..... we've all heard that expression about a million times. But is it really the best medicine? And for that matter, is it really medicine at all? Mounting evidence through research certainly suggests that laughter is medicinal with its own unique healing properties. Just how that healing occurs as well as laughter's full medical benefit is still a mystery.
One thing for sure... it feels good to laugh! Laughter triggers the release of endorphins which are the body's feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being in the body and can even temporarily reduce pain. Laughter eliminates negative emotions; anxiety, depression and anger all take a back seat when one is laughing (1). Laughter can also help reduce stress and tension. Muscles stay relaxed up to 45 minutes after a bout of laughing.
Researchers know that laughter can be a powerful ally in improving health and fighting disease. A recent study conducted at the University of Maryland found that laughter lowers blood pressure, improves the function of blood vessels, and increases blood flow which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems. According to Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the most significant finding in the study was that "people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations." They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility. Miller adds, "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list." (2)
Exactly what is laughter? Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a series of "rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions." Laughter is the physiological response to humor and is comprised of a unique set of vocal properties. According to behavioral neurobiologist and pioneering laughter researcher Robert Provine, it consists of short, vowel-like sounds that are repeated every 210 milliseconds. Laughter is a universal language, understood in all cultures around the world, and occurs in adult humans an average of 17 times per day. Interestingly, young children tend to laugh as many as 300 times per day!
Have you ever walked past a room full of people just as a loud burst of laughter erupts? Most of us will stop, and even turn around, to find out what the laughter is all about. Humans are naturally drawn to laughter; the cadence and rhythm are familiar and instinctual and we want to experience the same "feel good" emotions of those who are laughing. Laughter is a bonding experience and can help break the ice and nervous tension among strangers. When we laugh together, we immediately have something in common. Laughter is also contagious and even when one misses out on the initial joke, he or she will often end up laughing just because others are laughing. And one of the best things about laughter -- people don't even have to speak the same language to be able to laugh at the same things.
Laughter affects the body in much the same way that exercise does. It increases heart rate and burns calories. A study conducted at Vanderbilt University found that just 10-15 minutes of laughter can burn 50 calories or more. A good belly laugh causes the diaphragm to expand, contracts the abdominal muscles, and even gives the shoulders a bit of a workout. Interestingly, the brain does not know the difference between "real" laughter and "fake" laughter. So even if you aren't in a particularly humorous mood, forcing yourself to laugh (which usually results in real laughter anyway!) can provide all of the same healthy benefits. Laughter Yoga classes*, which have become quite popular in recent years, use this very method to promote wellness through forced laughter.
It is too easy to get bogged down in the details and seriousness of our busy lives. Due to work or school, professional commitments, and quiet environments, there are times throughout the day when humor and laughter are inappropriate. Therefore, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh when you can. Try to find humor in everyday situations. Learn to laugh at yourself, laugh with others and lighten things up a bit. Laughter unites people during difficult times and helps shift perspective allowing you see situations as less threatening.
There are many ways to incorporate more laughter into your life. Aim for a solid 10-15 minutes of laughter each day. Here are a few suggestions:
- Look for humor in everyday situations
- Read the comics section in the newspaper
- Spend time around funny people
- Spend time with children
- When you hear laughter, move towards it
- Watch funny TV shows and movies
- Visit a comedy club
- Purchase a book of jokes
- Practice telling jokes
- Interact with pets -- they do some of the funniest stuff!
Remember, smile and the world smiles with you. Smiling is the beginning of laughter....
"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."
~ Mark Twain
1. http://www.celebritydiagnosis.com/2011/09/ seth-rogan-and-will-reiser-talk-cancer-in-comedy-5050/
2. Laughter is the "Best Medicine" for Your Heart, University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umm.edu/features/laughter.htm
* For more information on laughter yoga, visit Laughter Yoga International at http://www.laughteryoga.org/