Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh. — W. H. Auden
Throughout the long trials of Covid-19, one of the main things that has linked humans together and always improves a situation, no matter how dire, is humor. Chances are you have been in a tense situation almost overflowing with anxiety when one person makes a joke or self-deprecating comment that instantly lessens anxiety and makes everything look just a little bit brighter. That’s the magic of laughter. It eases tension and relaxes us – physiologically, psychologically, and socially. Being able to laugh and find humor in any challenge is a key component to maintaining an optimistic orientation to life and can be deeply healing on every level of existence.
In today’s world, it’s easy to find ourselves stressed, exhausted, disconnected and overwhelmed. But by choosing to seek out more opportunities for humor and laughter, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life. If you have any doubt left as to the positive effect of laughter, recent advances in science have proved that humor can do everything from lower your blood pressure to mitigate the risk of Alzheimer’s to affect your body in a similar way to physical exercise!
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.
These physiological effects of exercise are “similar to the health benefits of aerobic exercise” and can be effective at relieving symptoms of chronic pain, arthritis, rheumatism, emphysema, and memory loss. According to Berk, “eventually the health benefits of humor and laughter will be as familiar to our senior citizens as the risk factors associated with heart disease and smoking.”
“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” — Jean Houston
According to a study published in Medical Hypotheses, people who laugh heartily on a regular basis have a lower standing blood pressure than the average person because laughter stimulates circulation. When people have a good laugh, blood pressure increases initially, but then decreases to levels below normal.
Research has shown that laughter reduces at least four of the neuroendocrine hormones associated with stress: 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.”
What’s more, we often laugh the most in the company of silly friends and family. These interactions with those we love have also been shown to reduce cognitive decline.
Dr. Berk and colleague Dr. Jerry Petrofsky found that watching a humorous video causes the body’s levels of leptin to decrease while increasing levels of ghrelin, similar to the acute effect of physical exercise that is associated with increased appetite. Dr. Berk explains rather than just making you hungry, “The ultimate reality of this research is that laughter causes a wide variety of modulation and that the body’s response to repetitive laughter is similar to the effect of repetitive exercise.”
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! Watch something funny on the treadmill and may just increase your calorie burn!
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.
Similar to exercise, pain actually releases endorphins that raise our pain tolerance. Researchers had participants squat to the point of collapse while playing humorous videos such as a live comedy show and clips from “Mr. Bean” and “Friends.” Across each test, participants were able to last longer when they were laughing. On average, displaying 15 minutes of comedy in a test group increased their pain threshold by 10%.
Various studies have demonstrated that laughter stimulates both sides of the brain, enhancing learning, memory, and mental functioning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allow people to retain more information.
Laughter has also been shown to increase short term memory in elderly people and reduce amyloid-beta levels that are responsible for Alzheimer’s Disease.
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.
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.
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 medicines that 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.” Additionally, 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 better patient care, less anesthesia time, less operating time, and shorter hospital stays. Perhaps the biggest benefit of laughter is that it’s free and has no known negative side effects.
Laughter even helps in preventative medicine. Positive thoughts and humor have 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; 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 that individuals who laugh regularly 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 developed better, more creative ideas. Researchers discovered that meetings with a relaxed environment and members laughing offered better feedback, asked more questions, and were more encouraging of others. While the context of a meeting plays a large role in this, if 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?
If you’re looking for a great laugh today, check out this hilarious compilation of laugh out loud pet moments that we are fortunate enough to have captured on video, or have a pandemic giggle with this video of a Zoom meeting gone wrong.
Join a laughter club
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 even has a free online Zoom laughter club anyone can join.
Learn about the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor
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 supportive community they need to excel in the practice and promotion of healthy humor.
Here is a downloadable worksheet containing three exercises to help you use laughter to promote emotional, mental and relational well-being. Do you have a great video of someone laughing? A video that captures pure joy and exuberance? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.