Laughing Matters: The Healing Power of Humor

Science weighs in on anecdotal evidence that laughter can help people feel better.

( - Yuri A /

They say that laughter is the best medicine. This age-old expression may have its origin in the biblical verse [A joyful heart makes for good health], but now modern science is weighing in. Laughing is like a super drug for your health that can boost the immune system, lift your mood, ease pain, and shield you from the harmful effects of stress.

The origins of laughter as a form of medicine
Journalist, author, and professor Norman Cousins was a well-known advocate of laughter as a form of medicine and a prominent figure in the field of health and wellness. Diagnosed with a connective tissue disease and ankylosing spondylitis in the late 1960s, Cousins aged (about) 50, received grim odds of recovery; just one in 500 chances. However, Cousins noticed that his pain and symptoms diminished when he indulged in laughter, according to the Newport Academy. So, he literally prescribed himself regular laughter doses by watching Candid Camera episodes and classic Marx Brothers films. Remarkably, he lived another 25 years post-diagnosis and delved into studying the medical benefits of laughter, with the support of California University Hospital.

Since then, research has consistently affirmed laughter's effectiveness in relieving pain and enhancing overall well-being. It's been found that laughter strengthens the immune system, likely because it triggers the body's relaxation response, similar to other sources of happiness. Additionally, a hearty laugh can ease physical tension, leaving muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes. Importantly, these physical improvements have a significant positive impact on mental health, as the mind and body are intricately connected.

How laughter heals
The ability to laugh easily and frequently is a remarkable resource for overcoming challenges, enriching relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional well-being, and the best part is that this invaluable medicine is enjoyable, cost-free, and easily accessible. 

While children burst into laughter hundreds of times a day, adults often bring a more serious tone to life, and laughter becomes rarer, according to the Help Guide organization. However, by actively seeking out humor and opportunities for laughter, an individual can enhance their emotional health, strengthen their connections with others, find greater happiness, and even potentially extend their lifespan.

Laughter boasts numerous health benefits, starting with its ability to relax the entire body. Moreover, laughter strengthens the immune system by reducing stress hormones, boosting immune cells, and increasing infection-fighting antibodies, enhancing your body's resistance to illness. It also triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals, promoting an overall sense of well-being and providing temporary relief from pain.

In addition to these benefits, laughter has a positive impact on cardiovascular health by improving blood vessel function and increasing blood flow, which can help guard against heart attacks and other heart-related issues, reports National Geographic. Although it's not a replacement for hitting the gym, studies suggest that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can even help burn around 40 calories, potentially leading to a loss of three to four pounds in a year.

Beyond its physical advantages, laughter serves as a powerful tool for diffusing anger and conflict, fostering a shared sense of humor that can help you view problems in a more balanced light and move past disputes without harboring bitterness or resentment, according to Help Guide.

The Norwegian study

In a long-range 15-year study conducted in Norway, and published in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers concluded that laughter may contribute to a longer life, indicating that individuals with a strong sense of humor tend to outlive those who don't laugh as frequently, a difference that was particularly pronounced among those facing challenging health conditions like cancer.

The study looked at 53,556 people in Norway who participated in the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study to see if humor had anything to do with how long people lived and what they died from, like heart problems, infections, cancer, or lung issues. The researchers asked people about different parts of humor, like how often they thought funny thoughts, how they acted with others, and how they felt when they laughed. 

The study found that women who had high scores for thinking funny thoughts lived longer, especially from heart problems and infections. But this wasn't the same for men. Other parts of humor, like how they acted or felt when they laughed, didn't make a big difference in how long they lived. 

As the study suggests, having a good sense of humor, and thinking funny thoughts, helps people – especially women – live longer, by keeping their hearts and immune systems healthy.

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