Laughter is good for you. This is something that I have believed in and accepted for years, even without really knowing why. You can remember how light you feel after a good laugh with friends, or how satisfying it is to have someone bust out laughing at a joke you just made.
As it turns out, some researchers have thought about moments like that and decided it would be a worthy endeavor to study the science behind it. They discovered that laughter is the physiological response that we make to humor (1). In a similar way to humans, chimpanzees and gorillas also have the ability to laugh by letting out sudden, breathy sounds in certain play situations (2). So, it appears that laughter is an action that has evolved and taken life over time. And perhaps part of the reason it is so important to humans is that it has therapeutic benefits.
In ancient Greece, physicians advised their patients to visit the hall of comedians as a way to incorporate laughter into their healing process. Even during the 16th century, a well-known English scholar often advocated that people use humor to help deal with their psychiatric disorders. People had an idea of the good that laughter brings but they didn’t have much empirical evidence backing it up (3).
As such, there has been much reluctance in the medical community to accept laughter as a possible adjunct therapy to different treatment plans.
Taking the Benefits of Laughter More Seriously
During the 20th century, some changes began to take place. People started taking the subject of humor more seriously and decided to conduct studies on the topic (4). In 1964, Dr. William Fry coined the word “gelotology” to describe the study of laughter (2). As a pioneer on the subject of laughter, Dr. Fry was one of the first researchers to take a deep interest in studying laughter and its effects on the body; he even applied for public funding for humor research (3). He unfortunately did not receive the funding, but he continued on with his research.
Fry's biggest contributions came from the studies he published on what happens in the body when people are laughing. In one of his studies, Dr. Fry used a pulse oximeter to measure changes in oxygen saturation that occur as a result of laughter.
He had the study participants laugh continuously for 3 minutes and then analyzed the subsequent respiration wave forms. He found no change in saturation but saw that laughter produced an increase in ventilation, muscle activity, and minute volume. In addition, laughter mobilized and removed secretions within the lungs. Through studies of this nature, Fry explored the physiology of laughter and sought to expand the existing literature on the subject (3).
In the 1970s, Norman Cousins published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about his experience with laughter and how it helped him with ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic disease that affects the spine (4). Doctors had given this UCLA professor and political journalist a prognosis of just a few months left to live. Yet, Cousins lived for almost 25 more years, and he believed that this was due in large part to the laughter therapy he included in his treatment.
Because of his research into human emotions, he believed that he could influence health by involving positive emotions in his treatment, specifically choosing to inject laughter into his daily life.
Cousins had his doctors prescribe him an extreme dose of intravenous vitamin C and then he supplemented this prescription with watching funny shows to make him laugh. Through this added effort, Cousins noted a significant reduction in his pain and was able to have 2 hours of pain-free sleep by inducing 10 minutes of laughter.
This peculiar case seemed to jump-start more widespread interest into laughter and health (3).
Laugh and Let It All Out
Overall, it appears that humor and laughter provide the body with quite a few psycho-physiological benefits. Some of these possible benefits are that they reduce anxiety, tension, stress, and loneliness. In addition, laughter can improve your mental functioning, work out certain muscles, improve respiration, and strengthen your immune system (2). Further research showed that the increases in heart rate and respiratory rate from laughter were also followed by a corresponding decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure (4).
This meant that laughter could relax your body’s processes and move you into a more comfortable state, like how magnesium relaxes the body.
Building off of this knowledge, Dr. Lee Berk, another important figure in humor research, discovered that laughter activates components of the immune system to help fight against inflammation and infection. Specifically, it activates natural killer cells and produces eustress that reduces the amount of cortisol circulating in the body. This means that laughter may help reduce your stress levels (5).
Often, people use humor as a way to cope with difficult or uncomfortable situations. This allows them to readjust their view and better manage the stressors they face.
In a study about coping, researchers found that people who find humor in their daily lives can handle stress better than those who do not (3). Furthermore, stressed people who have a good sense of humor experience lower levels of depression and anxiety than those whose humor aren’t as defined (5).
Laughter facilitates the building of positive emotional and social connections. When people invite humor into the conversation, it allows them to relax more and create a bond. Since current research accepts that human emotions interact with the mind and body, further research could perhaps reveal important applications for laughter therapy (3).
Future Implications for Laughter?
Since much of laughter research produces correlational results, I must point out that it is hard to argue causality. Randomized, controlled clinical trials on the topic are difficult for researchers to coordinate and find funding.
Still, it is worth noting that a great majority of laughter studies have produced positive results in regard to mental and physical health. It would be excellent if conclusive experiments were available for analysis but, as of yet, these have not been conducted. Therefore, it is important that we focus on what has been discovered and the fact that there are very few to no negative side effects associated with using laughter as a supplementary intervention (4).
Laughter comes natural to humans, so it wouldn’t hurt to explore its potential as an effective therapy. Maybe in the future, we will have doctors prescribing laughter as a way to improve health, alongside improving your diet and managing your exercise.
1. Brain, M. (2000). How laughter works. Retrieved from https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter1.htm
2. Butler, B. (2014). Laughter: The best medicine? [PDF file]. Oregon Library Association Quarterly 11(1), 11-13. Retrieved from https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/7422/laughter.pdf
3. Savage, B. M., Lujan, H. L., Thipparthi, R. R., & DiCarlo, S.E. (2017). Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review. Advances in Physiology Education, 41(3), 341-347. doi:10.1152/advan.00030.2017.
4. Strean W. B. (2009). Laughter prescription. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 55(10), 965–967. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2762283/
5. Doskoch, P. (1996). Happily ever laughter. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199607/happily-ever-laughter
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