Ode to Laughter: The healing power of one of life’s greatest joys
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.
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.”
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 also 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.
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 like 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.
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, like 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.”
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.
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 allows 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.
Moving to the realm of mental health, research has shown that when we laugh, our body releases endorphins, which are considered to be feel-good hormones. We also release dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are in charge of our motivation and balance our mood. All these substances help fight off depression and anxiety. As laughter improves our outlook 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.
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.
Today more than ever before, people are turning to humor for therapy and healing. 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.
Looking at human evolution, laughter helped humans evolve sustainable social groups by signaling safety and facilitating group interactions.
Indeed, laughter is a highly social activity — neuroscientist Robert Provine 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.