Humor has a way of knocking off our rough edges. It playfully jolts us awake and tickles us until we surrender to laughter. The late comedian and actor Milton Berle observed, "Laughter is an instant vacation." Laughter promotes light-heartedness and connection. Just think how heads turn and smiles appear when we hear a baby's magnetic laughter.
I vividly recall a favorite teacher sharing with our grade school class an Apache myth about the Creator giving human beings the ability to talk, to run and to love. But the Creator was not satisfied until he also gave them the ability to laugh. Only then, did the Creator say, "Now you will truly live." This same teacher had us start each morning before class by taking turns sharing a joke. This was true wisdom on her part given the beneficial physical, emotional, mental and social effects of laughter.
From the increase in blood flow and immune response to the stimulation of circulation and social connection, science is now citing the myriad health-inducing benefits of humor and laughter.
Laughter and Your Blood Vessels
Laughing causes the heart muscle and diaphragm to contract. This action forces air over the vocal chords, creating the rhythmic sound of laughter. The heart beats faster and the inner lining of the blood vessels dilate. This increases blood flow and sends more oxygen to the rest of the body. Circulation and muscle relaxation increases. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the body that contribute to relieving pain. It has also been shown to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.
A study supported by the National Institutes of Health and conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, used laughter-provoking movies to determine the effect of emotions on cardiovascular health. Researchers showed that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels, causing the endothelium (the tissue that forms the inner lining of the blood vessels) to expand in order to increase blood flow. Principal researcher, Dr. Michael Miller reported, "The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, so, given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. At the very least laughter offsets the impact of mental stress, which is harmful to the endothelium."
Laughter Increases Emotional Energy
Stress management specialist, Susi Amendola, recommends the practice of Laughter Yoga (See Ornish Living article, Laugh Yourself Healthy) Dr. Madan Kataria of Mumbai, India, dubbed "The Laughing Doctor" founded "Laughter Yoga." It's easy and fun, whether one practices it in a group or's self. No jokes, no tickling, no comedy bits are involved. One person begins to laugh and then another. Within minutes, everyone is laughing. This physical motion of laughter releases emotions of light-heartedness and joy. Amendola wrote, "Laughing bypasses the intellectual systems that suppress our natural joy. You can actually feel your blood circulating and your heart pumping. Yoga recognizes the joy that is our true nature."
An article written for Laughter Online University, Why Laughter Scares Depression, Anxiety and Activates Happy Feelings, explains why better moods equal better health. It states, "Laughter causes the body to release into the bloodstream high concentrations of different hormones and neuropeptides related to feelings of happiness, bonding, tolerance, generosity, compassion and unconditional love. The presence of this "joy cocktail" precludes the production of other hormones and neuropeptides that are related to feelings of hatred, fear, violence, jealousy and aggression."
Mira Kirshenbaum, author of The Emotional Energy Factor, believes that laughter is one of the key secrets in creating more emotional energy. She wrote, "Comedy is all about making big problems small. So laughter is a "problem shrunk." Not only that, it makes you feel bigger in relation to your problem, and this gives you a lot of emotional energy, both the fact that your problems are smaller and that you yourself have made them smaller."
Laughter Promotes Connection
In his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, researcher and science expert on laughter, Dr. Robert Provine, says that laughter can draw us together socially. His research has shown that we are thirty times more likely to laugh when we're with other people than when we are alone. He wrote, "Laughter is social glue that draws group members into the fold. Laughter is not primarily about humor but about social relationships." Among its many benefits, laughter has been shown to alleviate stress and connect us to others while also making life more fun. Laughing together puts us at ease with one another.
In a study in the Journal Human Nature, researchers from England found that sharing a laugh makes people more willing to tell others something personal about themselves. This finding is significant because self-disclosure (sharing feelings with others) is known to be a primary building block in forming and maintaining relationships.
The researchers gathered 112 Oxford University students who did not know each other and divided them into groups. The groups watched a 10-minute video together without talking to one another. The videos differed in the amount of laughter they evoked. One featured a standup comedy routine, another a golf instruction video and the third was a pleasant nature video.
After the videos, each test subject was asked to write a message to another participant to help them to get to know each other. The participants who had experienced a good laugh together shared significantly more intimate information than the groups who did not watch the comedy routine. The researchers reflected that the results did not occur merely because laughing is a positive experience but also because of the physiological effects of laughter. This includes the increase of "happy hormones" like dopamine and oxytocin and also the decrease of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. The researchers wrote, "These results suggest that laughter should be a dedicated topic for those interested in the development of social relationships".
Laughter Accentuates the Positive
In her book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, researcher and psychotherapist Kelly Turner documented over 1,000 cases of people who defied a serious diagnosis and became free of disease. She cites nine key factors that all of the survivors practiced on their journey to healing and remission.
Increasing positive emotions was one key factor in the training regimen of those who went on to wholeness and disease-free living. One example of the power of positive emotion is illustrated in the story of Saranne Rothberg. A stage IV cancer survivor, Rothberg employed humor to heal herself and to become a world-renowned therapeutic, humor and laughter expert. She started her ComedyCures Foundation from her chemotherapy chair during her first treatment, with a cell phone and laptop. Her non-profit was chosen to do the first comedy event at the United Nations. She has since partnered with the UN on many global projects for the ill and underserved. Through her programs she provides people living with illness an opportunity to integrate joy and laughter into each day. Rothberg has connected with more than a million people, at almost one thousand live events, with this message, "Seeing the world through a positive lens and seeing challenges as opportunities is a muscle that you have to exercise."
Our ability to laugh can be cultivated and practiced as we learn how to incorporate more fun into our daily lives. As Rothberg teaches, "Life is hard, and society is hard, and if you don't consciously prepare yourself each day to practice wonder and joy, you get really good at practicing stress and pain and anger and anxiety and fear. Kids laugh 300 to 400 times a day. But grown-ups? We laugh only about fifteen times a day."
In order to build laughter equity she suggests keeping a wellness joke book that includes all of your favorite jokes. She also advocates watching funny movies often with friends and families.
Check out this list of the American Film Institute's funniest American movies of all time. In addition to being healing medicine for the body, laughter has a unique ability to instantly lift the spirit. It helps us to clear our heads and shake off the blues. It encourages us to take a much-deserved rest in the gentleness of light-heartedness. As the Yiddish proverb states, "What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul." When we share a laugh together, we are reminded that we are not alone. We are comforted as our joint laughter affirms our shared vision of this sometimes crazy but wonderful life. The poignant words of musician and producer Quincy Jones, Jr. sums it up, "I've always thought that a big laugh is a really loud noise from the soul saying, '"Ain't that the truth."
How have you benefited from the healing effects of humor and laughter?
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