No joking matter: the benefits of laughter

The expression “laughter is the best medicine” has been around for a while, but is it really true that humor can play a role in our health?

The notion that laughter could have a curative effect got a foothold decades ago when journalist Norman Cousins wrote the book “Anatomy of an Illness,” detailing his self-styled treatment for a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, which involved megadoses of Vitamin C, a positive attitude and regular laughter courtesy of a steady diet of old Marx Brothers movies. Cousins reported, “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep … When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” — Groucho Marx

The reality is that there is not a lot of scientific evidence that humor and laughter has a significant impact on our health over the long term. There are some studies that support the stress-reducing benefits of humor, and we know that stress has an effect on our health, so there may be an indirect link there.

“Humor researchers” have looked at the physiological effects of laughter on health variables. When we laugh, we stretch muscles in our face and bodies, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues — kind of a mini-workout without even getting up off the couch! A study at Vanderbilt University revealed that 10-15 minutes of laughter burned about 50 calories. But that’s hardly enough to say that we can skip the gym and replace that with some funny movies.

“My mom said she learned how to swim when someone took her out in the lake and threw her off the boat. I said, ‘Mom, they weren’t trying to teach you how to swim.’” — Paula Poundstone

I think it’s great if it turns out that humor might improve my health, but I honestly don’t care if it doesn’t. I think it’s safe to assume that it’s not bad for my health, and I cannot imagine what the dangerous side effects might be. So, NEWS FLASH: laughing regularly feels good and makes life more pleasurable. Being encouraged to keep laughing because it might be good for me seems kind of like being encouraged to continue breathing because it will keep me healthy — isn’t it kind of self-evident? The fact that babies begin laughing out loud within months of being born speaks to the innate quality of humor that we seem to be born with.

Despite the dearth of good research on the health benefits of humor and laughter, I do think that we can see how it benefits us on some other levels. There’s a lot of positive emotion associated with humor, even when we’re laughing at something that is causing us distress. I love the Charlie Chaplin quote, “Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy in a long shot.” I know that some of the funniest stories that I can tell about myself now are about things that I was not amused by at the time. This speaks to another benefit of humor: it fosters our mental ability to shift perspective. It asks us to perceive the incongruities and absurdities in day to day life. Appreciating the punch line of a joke requires that we have a lighter, playful attitude, rather than being in a serious, logical mode.

“You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” — Yogi Berra

Maybe my favorite aspect of humor is its social quality: sharing the laugh with others. Would you rather watch a really funny movie sitting at home alone on your couch, or in a packed movie theater, surrounded by others who are also laughing? We laugh most often when we’re with other people and it creates a bond with family and friends. It supports a sense of cohesiveness in a group and it leads to happier relationships. Another quote that resonates with me is “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Think about a time when you might have been out in public and seen something funny on the street. Catching the eye of a stranger and sharing a smile about it creates an instant of togetherness, a kind of “can-you-believe-it?” moment that may be fleeting, but that links us in our common joys and struggles, even when no words are exchanged.

“I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said don’t be ridiculous – everyone hasn’t met me yet.”  — Rodney Dangerfield

Maintaining our sense of humor can help us through the darkest times in life. It unites us when things get rough and can act as a release valve for the tension born of adversity. Being able to laugh in painful circumstances is an indicator of our resilience, of our ability to bounce back rather than getting bogged down in our suffering.

There’s probably no faster way to make something less funny than to start analyzing it. That’s why I cringe a little at the term humor researcher – if you have to explain it, it’s probably not that funny. And humor is so subjective and individual. What makes me roar with laughter might make you roll your eyes in disdain. Telling someone to stop laughing at something because it’s “not funny” is probably the best way to get them laughing even more.

So whether or not it’s going to increase the release of endorphins, reduce pain and stress, boost our immune systems, or increase blood flow, I encourage you to laugh every day. Notice what amuses you, be it a comic strip, a YouTube video, or watching old Seinfeld reruns. Never lose the ability to laugh at yourself, even if it’s a little embarrassing at times, and hang out with people who amuse you. Laughter is contagious. . .pass it on.