Funniness and Physiology
Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, is considered a pioneer in the study of not just how laughter can heal a depressed mood but a depressed immune system as well. When diagnosed with an illness that gave him grave odds of survival, he did some research of his own. After learning how stress can play a negative role in a person's health, leading to diseases like cancer and heart disease, he figured the reverse must also be true.
Cousins figured the best anti-stressor was not only happiness, but an abundance of laughter. He proceeded to surround himself with as much humor as he could find, reading funny stories, books, and watching old Marx Brothers movies.
He found that when he laughed a great deal two hours before bedtime, he no longer needed painkillers. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he comments. Cousins eventually beat 550 to 1 odds, lived another 20 years, and credits laughter as the prescription that literally gave him back his life.
"Laughter may or may not activate the endorphins or enhance respiration, as some medical researchers contend. What seems clear, however, is that laughter is an antidote to apprehension and panic… It creates a mood in which other positive emotions can be put to work too," Cousins says.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. In his article "Laugh If This Is a Joke," published in the Journal of the AMA, Swedish researcher Lars Ljungdahl concluded: "A humor therapy program can increase the quality of life for patients with chronic problems and laughter has an immediate symptom-relieving effect for these patients, an effect that is potentiated when laughter is induced regularly over a period of time."
Research professor Lee Bark and endocrinologist Stanley Tan of California's Loma Linda University Medical Center are two of medical science's leaders when it comes to figuring out how laughter can play a positive role on a person's physiology.
In a study that involved having subjects watch a solid hour of funny videos, they took blood samples at 10-minute intervals before, during, and after the subjects laughed. Their findings showed that humor and exercise trigger similar physiological responses in the form of good hormones like endorphins with the added benefit of decreased levels of stress hormones.
"There really is something to this idea that one's frame of mind has an impact on the body's health system," says Dr. Paul McGee, a New Jersey psychologist who for 20 years has studied how laughter affects health. McGee—who says that if you can manage your mood, you can have better health—summarizes laughter's health benefits in the following ways:
- Stress Hormones are Reduced: Four major hormones associated with stress are known to become reduced as a result of laughing more: dopac, cortisol, epinephrine, and the growth hormone.
- Enhancement of the Immune System: Clinical studies have proven that laughter strengthens the immune system.
- Cardiac Exercise and Muscle Relaxation: Laughter causes the muscles in the belly to relax, giving the belly an internal jog. Laughter also provides great cardiac conditioning and is especially good for those unable to exercise.
- Reduction of Pain: Laughing and a good sense of humor help people in pain to at least temporarily forget about their aches and pains.
- Respiratory Benefits: Laughing helps the lungs release more air which leads to a cleansing effect, similar to that of deep breathing. This is especially beneficial to patients with emphysema and other respiratory ailments.
"It's already been suggested that if you make people laugh, they don't get as anxious, deal better with pain, and do better in the hospital," says cancer researcher Dr. Margaret Stuber, professor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "In the future, watching humorous videos could become a standard component during some medical procedures."