Why Laughter Is Good For You
Laughter is to life what shock absorbers are to automobiles. It won’t take the potholes out of the road, but it sure makes the ride smoother.
– Dr. William Fry, Stanford University Medical School
You might wonder why an article on laughter has found its way into an environmental website. For several good reasons, let me assure you. I have seen many activist friends of mine feeling overwhelmed about the scale of the problems facing the world, and it is common to see a feeling of depression and helplessness.
Should we starve ourselves, because there are millions dying around the world? On the contrary, we need to eat and exercise well to have all the physical energy to continue in our efforts to help ourselves, our families and communities in which we live. Similarly, should we feel low and sullen all the time because of myriad challenges facing the world? Without mental stamina it would become increasing difficult to put the energy behind the causes we are supporting. Laughter is food for the soul. The article below shows how important it is to incorporate a sense of humour in one’s life and also seriously consider laughter as another form of exercise and even a vehicle for healing.
I’m really grateful to Toastmasters International, who hold full copyrights to the following article, for allowing us to share this on our website. It really is one of the best pieces I’ve found on the net on the subject. The author Kathyrn Rose Gertz was a former United Nations Guide and prolific writer whose work appeared in leading magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times.
– Bhavani Prakash
WHY LAUGHTER IS GOOD FOR YOU
By Kathryn Rose Gertz
Warning: Laughter may be hazardous to what ails you. That’s the message from researchers investigating the physiology of mirth. Not that laughter as good medicine is anything new. Even Hippocrates took note of its salutary effect. Now, though, there are studies to prove in measurable ways that laughter does in fact soothe the mind and restore the body.
“If medicine could harness the proven health benefits of laughter,” says Clifford Kuhn, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, “drug companies would be knocking themselves out to get the patent.”
No question levity boosts resilience in the face of all manner of assault. Mirth, especially when directed at ourselves, imparts a sense of control, puts distance between us and our pain, gives us perspective, relieves tension, allows us to take a break. As Milton Berle put it, “Laughter is an instant vacation.”
But can it really help heal? Send in the clowns and get better? Dr. Kuhn, author of The Fun Factor, says yes and so do the scientists who have taken laughter into the lab and found that a walk on the funny side does a wondrous amount of good. Their work shows that laughter:
- Reduces the level of stress hormones
- Perks up the immune system
- Relaxes muscles
- Clears the respiratory tract
- Increases circulation
- Eases perceived pain
And at laugh’s end, feel-good endorphins flow, blood pressure settles down to below the norm, and increased oxygen to the brain revs up creativity. In short, laughter both stimulates and soothes, which is why we feel “enlivened, refreshed and clear-headed, much as we do after an aerobic workout,” observes laugh researcher Lee Berk, associate professor of pathology at Loma Linda University in California.
In fact, laughter really is a workout, according to psychiatrist William Fry, M.D., professor emeritus at Stanford University. “It’s a total body exercise,” he says. What’s more, the benefits build when you laugh often and regularly; as with any exercise, conditioning requires repetition. Dr. Fry should know. He has been researching mirth for more than 40 years and is considered the grandfather of the field.
But laughter is not a subject that lends itself easily to scientific scrutiny. It’s a surprisingly complex physical response to the psychological tickle of humor. Indeed, this seemingly simple act involves most of our body systems, including, of course, the brain. Using pinpoint imaging to eyeball the brain circuitry of volunteers as they laugh, scientists can track the movement of mer-riment as it activates both left and right hemispheres. Maybe this brain-wide involvement is why, as writer Daniel Goleman notes in his book Emotional Intelligence, “laughter…seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely.” Call is the “ha-ha to aha!” effect.
Dr. Fry takes it a step further. “All mental stimulation expands brain function,” he says, “which is a good reason to laugh a lot.”
Another fine reason is the measurable impact of laughter on the immune system. Dr. Berk’s field of interest is psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how the brain and the immune system, in effect, talk to each other. To listen in on this “conversation,” he hooks subjects up to IVs and angiocatheters and monitors them as they watch comedy tapes. Taking blood samples at 10-minute intervals, he has found that levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine actually lower when we laugh. (They both rise when we’re anxious and contribute to the recurrence of heart attacks.) He has also shown that laughing increases antibody immunoglobin A, which fights upper-respiratory-tract infections, mobilizes cells that attack tumors and viruses, and activates infection-fighting white blood cells.
The Humor Cure
A demonstration of laughter’s splendid power lies in the experience of Saranne Rothberg, a single mother from New Jersey who was diagnosed five years ago, at age 35, with advanced breast cancer. At the time, she was struggling through a contentious divorce and had a 5-year-old daughter, Lauriel, to keep safe and happy. Would she have the strength to parent? Would she even survive? From the doctor’s office, Saranne went right to the video store and rented every comedy video on the shelves. The next morning, thanks to Bill Cosby, et al., she put aside her considerable tears and enlisted her daughter and friends as “humor buddies” to tell her funny stories every day. So unshakably passionate was Saranne about the goodness of laughter that during the grueling course of three surgeries, 44 radiation treatments and two years of immune-weakening chemotherapy, she founded a charity, the ComedyCures Foundation, to bring humor strategies to others. Through it all, Saranne worked on the foundation, cared for Lauriel and, of course, laughed. “I was around illness all the time,” she recalls, “but I never even got a cold. It was as though my cancerous breast and I laughed and turned stress and disease on its head. We laughed and moved on.” Today she is cancer free. “I learned that whatever happens, you have a choice,” she says. “Choosing to laugh puts you in control.”
Though not everyone experiences such a turnaround, Saranne’s triumph over illness hardly surprises Dr. Kuhn, who runs humor-therapy groups for cancer patients and is himself a part-time stand-up comic. “Laughter is there precisely for the purpose of keeping our balance when we get knocked off,” he says. “It helps counteract things we would otherwise have no control over.”
Why We Laugh
Is this why human beings are blessed with the ability to laugh? Or, alternatively, did laughter evolve to help us connect and bond with each other in order to ensure survival of the species, as Robert Provine, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, suggests?
Both of these theories may be true, happily coexisting under the heading of endurance – the endurance of mind and body.
Of course there are those who wonder if it really matters why we laugh and what happens in the body when we do. Isn’t it enough just to enjoy a good joke? Experts say it actually does matter because the knowledge gained may one day affect the medical treatment we receive and even eliminate the need for some of it. Consider, for example, Dr. Berk’s study showing that mirthful laughter not only lowers the stress hormones that can induce arrhythmias, but is also useful in the process of cardiac rehabilitation. More research is needed, but why wait for science? Go ahead and laugh now. Laugh ‘til the cows come home and don’t worry if the joke is “udder” nonsense. If you do this often, you let fresh air into your mind and sunshine into your soul. You may even fix what’s broken and live happily ever after.
Kathryn Rose Gertz is a New York-based freelance writer.
Laughter Begins at Home
We laugh instinctively. In fact, laughter is so hard-wired in us that we would actually have to be taught not to. Academy Award winner Goldie Hawn explains, “It starts from the beginning with how you build your family. Our family laughs together. We laugh at our mis-takes. We make sure we laugh in a funny way at each other, and that we are able to take it so that we learn to have self humor. That in itself is so incredibly healing.”
Here, then, are some tips from Joel Goodman of the HUMOR Project to help families jumpstart laughter at home:
- On a rotating basis, have each family member be responsible for a “humor bulletin board” on the refrigerator. Each week a different person puts up cartoons, quirky quotes, humorous news stories, silly photos.
- Take funny photos and, once a month, compile them in a family-fun photo album. Or take digital photos and put them on your family Web site.
- Once a week, or even every day, have a joke-around at the dinner table where everybody shares something that made them laugh.
- Encourage your kids to keep their own humor journals by suggesting they write stories and draw pictures about things that have tickled their funny bones that day. Periodically reread these stories with your kids to re-enjoy the humor.
Tears and Cheers
It may seem futile to laugh in the face of pain and fear, but studies show that laughter, with its saving way of shifting perspective, is a broad-spectrum analgesic, a balm for both physical and psychological wounds.
When Dan Rather interviewed comedian Bill Cosby, just one week after his son, Ennis, was killed, Cosby said: “I think it’s time for me to tell people that we have to laugh. You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.”
Call it a flashlight for dark times: Laughter just seems to adjust attitude better than anything else. Inspirational speaker Steve Rizzo recalls a TV interview with an injured firefighter a few days after 9/11. The man had fallen more than 30 stories in one of the towers and had a broken leg. Everyone was crying, and the reporter asked, “How is it that you’ve come out of this alive?” He looked at her and without missing a beat, said, “Look, lady, I’m from New York and I’m a fire-fighter; that’s all you need to know.”
“Everyone laughed and though the laughter was only a couple of seconds,” says Rizzo, “some-times that’s all you need to catch your second wind. Laughter gives you that couple of seconds. You’re sending a message to your brain, and the message is: If you can still laugh even a little amid the pain and chaos, you’re going to be OK.”
Of course, there’s a difference between laughing off a serious situation and laughing off the fear that results. The firefighter was doing the latter, states Rizzo, the author of Becoming a Humor Being, and so should we. “If there’s anything we learned from 9/11, it’s how precious life really is,” he says. “We have to send a message that our spirit won’t die. One important thing that unites us is our ability to laugh.”
Thanks again to Toastmasters International for sharing the above write-up.
Further links you may be interested in :
1. YouTube: Benefits of Laughter Yoga with John Cleese
2. The Sunday Times: The Science of Laughter
Images Credits from Google Images licensed for reuse:
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