By Kristy Jansen
Have you ever been in a situation brimming with tense anxiety that evaporates the instant one person makes a joke or self-deprecating comment and everyone chuckles together? That’s the magic of laughter. It eases tension and relaxes us – physiologically, psychologically and socially. It is often the glue that holds people and relationships together. Being able to laugh and find humor in the challenges that face us all is a key component to maintaining an optimistic orientation to life and can be deeply healing on every level of existence. In today’s culture, many people find themselves stressed, exhausted, disconnected and overwhelmed. By seeking out more opportunities for humor and laughter, though, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life.
A couple weeks ago we dove deeper into the Power of Positivity, and this week we are tackling a topic closely related to positive thinking and joy. This week’s Optimist View is devoted to laughter. We hope this overview of the research we have covered in the past decade, and the tools and resources that follow will be inspiring and useful to you.
In synthesizing 30 years of research in the field of humor, Ronald A. Berk of Johns Hopkins University explains that laughter has numerous physiological effects involving the muscular, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, immune, and central nervous systems.
According to a study published in Medical Hypotheses, people who laugh heartily, on a regular basis, have a lower standing blood pressure than does the average person because laughter stimulates circulation. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases, but then it decreases to levels below normal.
Research has shown that laughter reduces at least four of the neuroendocrine hormones associated with stress. These are epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and growth hormone. Laughter also triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins, often referred to as “feel-good hormones,” because they interact with the receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain and create a positive feeling in the body.
Clinical studies by Dr. Lee Berk at Loma Linda University have shown that laughter strengthens the immune system by increasing the number and activity level of infection-fighting antibodies and disease-fighting proteins. Laughter appears to tell the immune system to “turn it up a notch.”
According to Dr. William Fry, a professor at Stanford University, laughter can provide good cardiac, abdominal, facial, and back muscle conditioning, especially for those who are unable to perform physical exercise. Laughter also results in muscle relaxation. While you laugh, the muscles that do not participate relax. After you finish laughing, those muscles involved in the laughter start to relax as well.
Laughter even burns calories. As silly as it may sound, 10 to 15 minutes of laughter a day can burn approximately 40 calories. Maybe not good enough to be your only source of exercise, but it certainly doesn’t hurt!
Laughter allows a person to “forget” about pains such as those associated with aches, arthritis, and chronic pain. In a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, psychologist Rosemary Cogan used the discomfort of a pressure cuff to test the medical benefits of laughter on pain management. Subjects who watched a 20-minute Lily Tomlin routine could tolerate a tighter cuff than those who had watched an informational tape or no tape at all.
Various studies have demonstrated that laughter stimulates both sides of the brain, which enhances learning, memory, and mental functioning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information.
Laughing is aerobic, providing a workout for the diaphragm and increasing the body’s ability to use oxygen. Frequent belly laughter empties your lungs of more air than it takes in, resulting in a cleansing effect similar to deep breathing. This deep breathing sends more oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body, which is especially beneficial for patients who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments, according to Dr. Lee Berk.
We just celebrated Valentine’s Day, the holiday of hearts, so how does laughter influence this vital organ? Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect you against a heart attack, according to a study from the University of Maryland Medical Center. The study, which is the first to indicate that laughter may help prevent heart disease, found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
Laughing also provides us with many psychological benefits that help to improve our mental health and overall well-being.
Laughter makes us happier and more optimistic
Research has shown that when we laugh, our body releases endorphins, which are considered to be feel-good hormones. We also release the hormones dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are in charge of our motivation and balance our mood. All of these substances fight several mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. And the more intense the laughter is, the more it helps us keep a positive outlook on life. As laughter improves our way of seeing things by making us more optimistic, it also helps us maintain our sense of humor regardless of the situation. This creates positive thoughts and emotional distension, which can also boost our self-esteem.
Laughter helps us cope
Humor and laughter are powerful emotional medicine that can lower stress, dissolve anger, and unite people in troubled times. Laughter facilitates the adaptive response to stress by increasing the psychological distance from distress and by enhancing social relations. Research has shown that laughter can help ease grief and bereavement over the loss of a spouse. According to one study published in the scientific journal OMEGA, “the lowest grief and depression scores were found among those who were classified as experiencing a relatively high degree of humor laughter, and happiness.” Even more, those who laughed when speaking of their deceased spouse related better to others and created new intimacies sooner.
In another study, terminally ill patients described humor as important for social bonding toward the end of life, with 64% reporting that it helped them to alter their perceptions of situations that would otherwise be overwhelming. A further 85% described humor as empowering hope, which they felt to be of the utmost importance in helping them face the realities of everyday existence.
Laughter helps us heal
Today more than ever before, people are turning to humor for therapy and healing. Medical journals have acknowledged that laughter therapy, a type of therapy that uses humor to help relieve pain and stress and improve a person’s sense of well-being, can help improve quality of life for patients with chronic illnesses. Many hospitals now offer laughter therapy programs as a complementary treatment to illness. Studies from around the world have shown that an atmosphere of humor results in a better patient cure, less anesthesia time, less operating time, and shorter hospital stays. Perhaps, the biggest benefit of laughter is that it is free and has no known negative side effects.
Laughter even helps in preventative medicine. Positive thoughts and humor has been shown to release neuropeptides which boost the immune system and help fight off potentially serious illnesses.
By signaling safety and facilitating group interactions, laughter helped humans evolve sustainable social groups, just as laughter helps create social cohesion today.
Indeed, laughter is a highly social activity – the neuroscientist Robert Provine has found that people laugh most in conversation, and we are around 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with others. And though we associate laughter with humor, a large proportion of laughs aren’t in response to humor but are rather just affirmations, communications, or expressions of joy.
Laughter is contagious, sometimes uncontrollably so. Mirror neurons fire when we see someone else laughing and our body responds with an impulse to laugh. Indeed, laughter facilitates group cohesion and solidarity because when people laugh together, they are sharing a mental and acoustic space with each other. Laughter signals a shared understanding of the world, which is foundational to like-mindedness, interdependency, and intimacy.
Laughter’s ability to counteract the body’s physiological responses to stress provides great benefit in the workplace, where stress is the number one cause of worker’s compensation claims. Research shows: individuals who laugh regularly, long and hard, focus better, think more creatively, and problem solve better than co-workers who do not. These individuals tend to be more productive, more efficient, and they tend to make fewer mistakes and take fewer sick days from work.
One study found that meetings that were funny and full of laughter catalyzed better, more creative ideas. Researchers discovered when all members of the meeting laughed and were encouraged to laugh they were more engaged, offered better feedback, asked more questions and were more encouraging of others. While obviously, the context of a meeting plays a large roll in this, if it’s appropriate, laughter can be a great way to lighten up a stiff room and get the creativity flowing.
Looking to incorporate more joy and laughter into your day to day life?
A Laughter Club is a group of people who practice laughter as a form of exercise. Laughter clubs take place in many different settings from business spaces, fitness centers, and nursing homes to public beaches, parks and community centers. The Laughter Yoga Institute helps organize laughter clubs around the world and on their website you can find free resources to help you laugh more.
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) is a non-profit, member-driven, international community of humor and laughter professionals and enthusiasts. Formed in 1987 by Registered Nurse, Alison L. Crane, AATH provides its members the education, cutting-edge resources, and a supportive community they need to excel in the practice and promotion of healthy humor.
Here is a downloadable worksheet with three exercises to help you use laughter to promote emotional, mental and relational well-being.