Laughter’s Health Benefits

A few weeks ago, I was driving to New Hampshire with a couple of friends.  Someone said something silly and we got to giggling.  Giggling turned to laughter, and pretty soon, we were hysterical.  We were laughing so hard that I had to pull over on the side of Route 3 because I didn’t feel like I could drive safely.  Once we settled down and got back on our way, I noticed that I felt great.  Earlier that day, I had felt stressed about life and had almost cancelled on our shopping trip to Nashua. The laughter had helped to balance my stress levels and made me feel much better.

Later that day, we got talking about our laughing fit and none of us could even remember what we had all found so funny.  Our silliness had fed off of each other until we were nearly incoherent. Laughing is contagious–you don’t need to know the punch line.

When was the last time you found yourself in a fit of laughter? How about giggles that just wouldn’t stop? Do you remember how it made you feel – your mind, your body, your spirit?

There is truth to the adage “laughter is the best medicine.” An article published on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology by William B. Strean, PhD states that “virtually all studies of laughter and health indicate positive results.”

A good laugh has great short-term effects. When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body. According to a recent article on the Mayo Clinic website:

  • Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • A boisterous laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase and then decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
  • Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.

Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, though. It’s also good for you over the long term. Laughter may:

  • Improve your immune system. Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.
  • Relieve pain. Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.
  • Increase personal satisfaction. Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.
  • Improve your mood. Many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier.

“Laughter is the glue in the social atmosphere that helps keep relations smooth and relaxed,” says Jan van Hooff, Ph.D., a biologist in the Netherlands who’s studied the intersection of humor and health. “Play and laughter as an expression of that relaxed attitude has become extremely important in our social behavior.”

During van Hooff’s study of humans and animals at play, he noted that joyfulness is often more evident in the young. “As a rule, as individuals get older, the inclination to engage in playful behaviors decreases,” he says. “When they get older, they get involved in all the serious things of status behavior, maintaining your position, and all of that.”

The good news is that humans keep the ability to laugh and play into older age, even though we may not express it as freely. Go ahead and embrace playfulness, silliness, and joy. It could lead to a longer, healthier, and happier life.

There are ongoing studies about laughter and joy, and their impact on our health.  While much more research is needed before our insurance companies start reimbursing us for tickets to a comedy show, the findings to date show that laughter creates a benefit to our overall health and wellbeing.