When I was a kid, I had a secret weapon against being sick: The Three Amigos. Whenever I was home from school with a cold or flu, my mom would pick up a copy of my favorite movie, and I’d watch it over and over again, laughing hysterically at the part where Chevy Chase accidentally shoots the invisible swordsman. Somehow, watching that movie always made me feel better than chicken soup, ice cream, or any remedy from the doctor’s office ever did.
Laughter isn’t just useful for overcoming a case of the sniffles; it’s actually a powerful weapon against all kinds of bodily woes—stress, heart disease, and problems with the immune system. When experts claim that laughter is “good for the soul” or “the best medicine,” they’re not kidding. Scientists who study the physical and psychological effects of laughter are called gelotologists, and they are discovering that laughing, like crying, has irrefutable benefits for our physical and mental health. In fact, a chuckle (or two) a day just might keep the doctor away.
Laughter: The Why and the How
Some researchers and gelotologists believe that laughter first developed as a way to make and strengthen connections between primitive humans. Sharing a hearty laugh is a social bonding experience, and the relaxation and calm that follows a bout of laughter can help people ease tensions and increase trust in their companions. Studies have shown that laughter has a strong social component—we are about thirty times more likely to laugh when we’re in a social situation than we are when we’re alone (unless we’re watching a particularly hilarious episode of Arrested Development). Groundbreaking laughter researcher Robert Provine even theorizes that all humans have a “laughter detector,” which triggers neurons to fire in response to other people’s laughter, thereby making us laugh too. His theory suggests that laughter really is contagious.
Everyone has a slightly different sense of what’s funny, of course, but when our funny bone is tickled by something we find humorous, the brain’s limbic system responds by disrupting our breathing; the larynx half-closes and we respond by gasping and trying to catch our breath. At the same time, our facial muscles make a recognizable set of movements, and if something is really funny, our face reddens, and our tear ducts get in on the act too, causing our eyes to water. These sounds and movements are universal and mostly involuntary. If you’ve ever tried forcing yourself to laugh, you know that it’s harder than it sounds. Although no one laughs exactly like anyone else, we all exhibit the same movements and involuntary reactions, whether our laughs take the form of a giggle or a guffaw.
Good for What Ails ’Ya
Although a hearty chuckle feels good, it’s mostly what happens afterward that has an impact on our health. Laughing immediately raises our heart rate and blood pressure—and then lowers them just as quickly, leaving us with a feeling of relaxation and release. That relaxation is the key for reducing stress. The rapid intake of air helps to oxygenate our blood, too. The after effects of laughing can help increase our sense of well-being and boost our immune response. Laughter also stanches the flow of the stress hormone cortisol, which can suppress the immune system and raise blood pressure.
It’s well known that stress contributes to heart problems and laughter has incredibly positive effects on the heart and vascular system. Stress can lead to inflammation of the endothelium, the protective lining of our blood vessels, which can result in fat and plaque buildup in our arteries. A study done at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh at humorous situations, compared to people without heart disease; laughter has also been shown to increase blood flow by about 22 percent. Laughter is a great way to release pent-up feelings of rage, anger, hostility, or frustration, emotions that might otherwise be stifled and turned into a stress response that could have negative health repercussions.
Prolonged laughter can be a physical workout, too. Researchers theorize that laughing one hundred times is the equivalent of ten to fifteen minutes of aerobic exercise, and works several muscle groups including the back muscles, core stabilizers, and—the best part—abdominals. Forget crunches—watching Observe and Report officially counts as exercise.
Watch Two Seinfelds and Call Me in the Morning
Now that research is demonstrating the innumerable health benefits of laughter, bringing it to the masses has become a new cottage industry. It’s not just stand-up comedians who are making money by making us laugh. The newest trend is laughter as therapy. People can now choose humor therapy, clown therapy, laughter yoga, and laughter meditation to recover from illness or injury, or just to learn to get more enjoyment out of life. Yes, the story of Patch Adams, the kindly pediatrician who uses the healing power of laughter, isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.
The best part of laughing … it feels good. Whether we are seeing a comedy show, watching a great movie, or simply reminiscing with friends, laughter makes us feel relaxed, calm, and happy. People who laugh often are usually more optimistic and have higher self-esteem than people who simply don’t find anything all that funny. If you’re not getting your recommended daily allowance of laughter, there’s plenty of ways to easily get in your giggles. If living a happy, healthy life is as simple as watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail once a week, then sign me up for laughter therapy, stat. Doctor’s orders.