A few years ago, we lost two of our most beloved comedians, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Who can forget Robin Williams’ improvisations and the characters he brought to life in Mork and Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Patch Adams, in which he played a pediatrician who used humor as medicine. Or Joan Rivers’ zingers, which were often directed at herself: “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
But Robin Williams and Joan Rivers were not only comedians—they were healers. They made us laugh, and emerging research demonstrates what we intuitively know: There are many health benefits of laughter.
Benefit of Laughter #1: Positive Attitude, Strong Social Network
Some of the health benefits of laughter are obvious. People who laugh a lot usually have a positive attitude and the ability to find humor even when things aren’t going well. Because they’re fun to be around, people gravitate toward these folks, and they generally have a strong social network, which benefits not only them but everyone around them. My wife, Connie, for example, spends 75 percent of her waking life laughing. I’m a lucky man.
Benefit of Laughter #2: As Beneficial as Exercise?
But laughter does more than make you feel good. A hearty belly laugh has many of the same physiological effects as exercise. In addition to working out your muscles, especially those in your face and core, another health benefit of laughter is that it temporarily increases your pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen delivery throughout the body. It also stimulates the release of nitric oxide, a signaling molecule that relaxes the blood vessels, enhances blood flow, and reduces inflammation and platelet clumping. One of the great health benefits of laughter is that vigorous, sustained bursts even burn calories!
Benefit of Laughter #3: Good for Your Brain
Another health benefit of laughter is that it positively alters brain function. Researchers have discovered that laughing provokes gamma wave activity, the type of brain waves that dominate during meditation, and boosts the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward and pleasure pathways. It reduces levels of stress hormones and may even improve memory.
In a study conducted at Loma Linda University, healthy people in their 60s and 70s who had watched a funny video had lower levels of cortisol and performed better on tests of recall compared to those who simply sat quietly prior to testing.
Benefit of Laughter #4: Humor Therapy Treats Disease
Although some assisted living facilities and pediatric hospitals use humor therapy with their patients, there’s not much definitive research on laughter’s effects on health. Who would fund such studies? Certainly not Big Pharma. (Just imagine, though, what a blockbuster laughter would be if it could be patented and sold!) A few small studies have demonstrated increases in certain types of immune cells and reductions in blood sugar and markers of inflammation in study volunteers after watching comedy shows. But the best-known account of the healing power of humor is Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness.
Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling inflammatory disease of the spine, Norman Cousins required prolonged hospitalization and was in severe pain, which he described as feeling like he’d been “run over by a truck.” Concerned about the adverse effects of his medications and aware that pain can be affected by attitude, he worked with his doctor to set up a unique treatment program: high-dose vitamin C and humor. His humor “prescription” consisted of funny shows like Candid Camera, Marx Brothers movies, and humorous books.
He wrote, “It worked. I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” He eventually moved to a hotel because it cost two-thirds less than the hospital, had better food—and his laughter didn’t disturb other patients. And against all expectations, Norman Cousins made a full recovery.
How We Harness the Health Benefits of Laughter
We do several things here at Whitaker Wellness to harness the health benefits of laughter. First, a positive attitude is a requisite for working at the clinic, and the staff is encouraged to laugh and have fun with our patients. Second, we regularly show comedy videos to our Back to Health Program attendees, and I make a point of telling jokes and funny stories during my lectures.
Third, and perhaps most important, we encourage our patients to seek out opportunities to laugh. If there’s nothing to laugh about, laugh anyway! We instruct them to smile, graduate to a chuckle, then to a belly laugh. It’s often difficult to find reasons for laughter, but it’s easy as pie to just laugh—and I believe that the health benefits of laughter generated from this practice are the same as they are for “genuine” laughter. I do this routinely when I’m walking or riding a stationary bike for exercise, and it invariably lifts my mood.
How to Reap the Health Benefits of Laughter
Practice makes perfect. Honestly, try it for yourself. It may seem a little odd at first to smile and laugh when there’s nothing to smile or laugh about, but you’ll quickly get the knack of it. Like all skills you can learn, the more you laugh, the more spontaneous and beneficial it becomes. This is one “medicine” you can’t get too much of.
When you smile the whole world smiles with you. Give it a try and let the myriad health benefits of laughter go to work for you.