The Effects of Laughter

Plato‘s remark that “Even the gods love jokes.” must be correct, for the value of laughter is recorded in sacred scripture. For example, the Quran states that “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.” By the fourteenth century, the healing power of humor was recognized by the medical community. An important French surgeon, Henri de Mondeville, wrote “Let the surgeon take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient’s life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him, and by having someone tell him jokes.”

However, extensive research on “laughter therapy” did not begin until after the New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Norman Cousins in 1976. Later, in 1979, this article became the first chapter of his book, Anatomy of an Illness. In it he explained how he was diagnosed in 1964 with ankylosing spondylitis (also known as spondylitis, AS, or Bechterew Disease). The disease usually results in acute inflammation of the spine and can affect other areas of the body as well. Norman Cousins’ case was so severe that he was given a one in five hundred chance of recovery and a few months to live.

Realizing that negative thoughts and attitudes can result in illness, he reasoned that positive thoughts and attitudes may have the opposite effect. So he left the hospital and checked into a hotel where he took mega doses of vitamin C and watched humorous movies and shows, including Candid Camera and the Marx Brothers. He found that ten minutes of boisterous laughter resulted in at least two hours of pain-free sleep. He continued his routine until he recovered. Thus, he proved that laughter is the best medicine, and pointed the way to mind-body medicine.

William Fry, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School and expert on health and laughter, reports the average kindergarten student laughs 300 times a day. Yet, adults average just 17 laughs a day. Why the difference? Are we too uptight, too tense? Do we take life too seriously? Isn’t it time we learned how to relax? We don’t stop laughing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop laughing. So, if we want to fly like the angels and share in their happiness, we’ll have to follow their example and take ourselves lightly.

Our five senses are not enough for ideal living. We need to use our sixth sense: our sense of humor. Humor isn’t about merely telling jokes; it’s the way we view the world. We can be sincere about life without taking it so seriously. We can laugh about our mistakes and pain. Louis Kronenberger explains: “Humor simultaneously wounds and heals, indicts and pardons, diminishes and enlarges; it constitutes inner growth at the expense of outer gain, and those who posses and honestly practice it make themselves more through a willingness to make themselves less.”

The brilliant American humorist, James Thurber, described humorists as follows: “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.”

The wellspring of laughter is not happiness, but pain, stress, and suffering. Socrates pointed this out when he taught, “The comic and the tragic lie inseparably close, like light and shadow.” So, we should be thankful for our suffering, for without it there would be nothing to laugh at! When we laugh at our woes, they dissolve, or at least become bearable, so that we arrive at peace and happiness. As the pragmatic philosopher and psychologist, William James said, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we are happy because we laugh.”

The benefits of laughter are too numerous to ignore. Now is the time to resolve that we will consciously make an effort to laugh frequently throughout the day. Of course, as we do so, let’s laugh with people — not at them. Let’s laugh at what people do, not at what people are. And let’s laugh not only to lighten our burdens, but those of everyone we meet.

Laughter’s Role in Life

When the going gets tough, how does one keep a firm footing and avoid slipping and falling into an abyss of despair? There is no better tool than a sense of humor. To support this claim, here are the words of three great men who acknowledged the power of humor to overcome adversity.

First, renowned Psychiatrist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and 32 other books, developer of Logotherapy, a major player in Existential Psychology, and a Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl had this to say, “I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily… out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable… survivable.”

Second, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln interrupted a meeting by reading an amusing story with the hope of dispelling the black clouds hovering over his staff. But no one as much as smiled. Finally, Lincoln said, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

Third, like David who slew Goliath, frail Mahatma Gandhi overcame The British Empire. How did he do it? He explained, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”

One of the main causes of suffering and stress is a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, or lack of control. But a sense of humor can put one back in control. For example, instead of giving in to depression, a Multiple Sclerosis patient may use humor and say, “You know, one good thing about MS is you don’t have to worry about stirring your coffee anymore.” Humor may not cure MS, but it will cure a bleak attitude and continue to make life worth living, for if we can learn to laugh at ourselves, we’ll always have something to laugh about. Even if humor cannot extend our life, it can end it on a positive note. For instance, the head of the firing squad asked the condemned man, “Before we shoot you, would you like a last cigarette?” And the prisoner replied, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit smoking!”

Genuine humor points out the weaknesses of humanity, but without contempt. It is a commentator of life, not a critic of it. Its purpose is to uplift, not tear down, and to lighten the burdens of others, not add to them. Good humor does not belittle or promote stereotypes, for it springs from the heart, not the mind. It is a shock absorber that helps us get over the bumps in life. Those with a good sense of humor have a good sense of life.

Although it is not the proper role of humor to make fun of others, self-deprecating humor is positive because it encourages humility. It also fosters courage, for that is exactly what is needed to remove the mask one normally wears and expose one’s weaknesses to all. It is because of their courage and honesty that we hold comics in high regard. When we dispense with the false notion of our self-importance, we will eliminate a major cause of suffering. With similar thoughts in mind, Francis Bacon wrote, “Imagination was given to man to compensate for what he is not, and a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Life is not so much a path as it is a tightrope. By that I don’t mean it is a difficult road to tread, but merely that we must keep our balance. That is, it makes sense to take our work and responsibilities seriously, but not ourselves.

Much research has been done on the on the effects of humor and laughter on our health. The benefits are enormous and include boosting our immune system, reducing stress, relaxing muscles, lowering blood pressure, increasing our tolerance for pain, and hastening the healing process. By now, almost everyone is familiar with the link between our body and mind that has been proven. For example, it has been shown that our attitude is more important than our physical health in determining how long we live. That is, senior citizens with a good sense of humor and a positive attitude, but poor health, survive longer than those that are in good health but have poor attitudes.

Another way of expressing this is to say that what jogging does for the body, humor and laughter does for our emotional, mental, and physical health. Yes, it’s true; laughter is the best medicine, so we can become our own best medicine. Those with a good sense of humor are cheerful. Every day to them is a sunny one. If storm clouds should appear, they rely on laughter, for like lightning, it adds moments of brightness to the darkest days.

Use the acronym L.A.U.G.H.T.E.R. to remind you of some of its benefits. ‘L’ stands for LIVE life to the fullest. When we share humor, we are living in the moment and spreading joy. ‘A’ stands for an AWARENESS and APPRECIATION for the incongruities of life. The inconsistencies and ironies you face offer unlimited opportunities to laugh at them. For example, what can be more ridiculous than the way I looked one winter day? I was wearing long johns and trousers, an undershirt, tee shirt, two sweaters, a winter jacket, and a winter hat. Not to be funny, but to stay warm. You see, the heater in my house was not working, and neither was the repairman — because it was a holiday. I had to type fast just to keep my hands warm!

‘U’ stands for USE your brain to drain pain with laughter. USE humor to discover delight, joy, and peace of mind. ‘G’ stands for GOOD HUMOR at all times. I repeat, at all times, for as George Bernard Shaw wrote “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” ‘H’ stands for HEALTH. Laughter detaches us from our problems and releases negative emotions; it is the best medicine.

‘T’ stands for TRANSFORM. Laughter transforms our thoughts, which in turn transforms our feelings for the better. ‘E’ stands for EXUBERANCE, which is the zest that laughter brings to our lives. And ‘R’ stands for the RESILIENCE we acquire by learning to deal with hardship and pain, for humor is the strongest weapon against adversity.

Summarizing, a good sense of humor keeps us lighthearted, and hopeful. Like Thomas Edison, we’ll be able to say, “When down in the mouth, remember Jonah. He came out OK.” As long as we maintain our sense of humor, we’ll never be poor. How will you know if you have a good sense of humor? Frank Tyger explains, “The ultimate test of whether you possess a sense of humor is your reaction when someone tells you, you don’t.”

The Many Benefits of Laughter

1. When you make fun of yourself, you disempower those who would make fun of you and preempt possible confrontations.

2. Laughter dissolves tension, stress, anxiety, irritation, anger, grief, and depression. Like crying, laughter lowers inhibitions, allowing the release of pent-up emotions. After a hearty bout of laughter, you will experience a sense of well-being. Simply put, he who laughs, lasts. After all, if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Remember, a person without a sense of humor is like a car without shock absorbers.

3. Medical researchers have found that laughter boosts the immune system. The study of how behavior and the brain affect the immune system is called psychoneuroimmunology. Though still relatively young, this science is rapidly gaining much attention as mankind strives to understand the mind-body relationship.

4. Laughter reduces pain by releasing endorphins that are more potent than equivalent amounts of morphine.

5. Humor helps integrate both hemispheres of our brain, for the left hemisphere is used to decipher the verbal content of a joke while the right hemisphere interprets whether it is funny or not.

6. Laughter adds spice to life; it is to life what salt is to a hard-boiled egg.

7. Develop your sense of humor and you will find you are more productive, a better communicator, and a superior team player.

8. Everyone loves someone who can make them laugh. The more you share your sense of humor, the more friends you will have.

9. Humor brings the balance we need to get through the turbulence of life comfortably.

10. Laughter is even equivalent to a small amount of exercise. It massages all the organs of the body, according to Dr. James Walsh.

11. A sense of humor can help you accept the inevitable, rise to any challenge, handle the unexpected with ease, and come out of any difficulty smiling.

12. Laughter increases memory, intelligence, and creativity.

13. Additionally, Jordan Rosenfeld reports: “ LAUGHTER IS A SIGN OF GOOD WILL TOWARD OTHERS. Laughter may be unique to humans. Why do we do it? According to a 2010 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, laughter and smiling are generally intended as a message of good will. The authors extrapolate that there is a similar function in primates, who use facial expressions with bared teeth to suggest friendliness and sociability. They write, ‘Because some forms of smiling are voluntary and easily faked, laughter, which requires a more synergetic contraction of the wider musculature, is believed to have evolved in humans to express a secure, safe message to others.’”

14. Rosenfeld also reports, “LAUGHTER CAN REDUCE ANXIETY AND OTHER NEGATIVE EMOTIONS. A 1990 study in Psychological Reports looked at the effects of humorous laughter on threat-induced anxiety. Researchers led 53 college students to believe (falsely) that they were going to receive an electric shock after a waiting period.

Subjects in the experiment group listened to a humorous tape while waiting for their shock. The placebo group listened to a non-humorous tape, and the control group did not listen to any tape. The humor group reported that their anxiety decreased during the anticipatory period, and those with the highest self-reported level of sense of humor had the lowest reported anxiety.

Laughter therapy has also been shown to improve anxiety in patients with Parkinson’s disease, reduce anxiety and depression in nursing students, and improve optimism, self-esteem, and depression in menopausal women.

From a general psychological perspective, author Bernard Saper suggests in a paper for Psychiatric Quarterly that the ability to maintain a sense of humor and the ability to laugh can act as positive coping mechanisms to help a person get through difficult times.

15. Social Benefits of Laughter:

  • Strengthens relationships
  • Attracts others to us
  • Enhances teamwork
  • Helps defuse conflict
  • Promotes group bonding

References

BOOKS

Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by Robert R. Provine

TIME: The Science of Laughter, Single Issue Magazine – June 29, 2018 by The Editors of TIME

The Laughing Cure: Emotional and Physical Healing? A Comedian Reveals Why Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine by Brian King

Laughter Therapy: How to Laugh About Everything in Your Life That Isn’t Really Funny By Annette Goodheart

Lemons to Laughter by Tim Gabrielson

Laughter Yoga by Dr. Madan Kataria

VIDEOS

Laughter Is Good for Your Brain

Anthony McCarten: On laughter

Laughter yoga: laughing away the stress

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