“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”
Some clichés are just trite soundbites that get repeated so often as to become meaningless. But other clichés become part of the English lexicon because they’re true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” One cliché that has stood the test of time because of its veracity is “Laughter is the best medicine.”
TV writer and producer Norman Cousins famously recounted his tale of healing via high-dose vitamin C, other interventions, and a huge daily dose of humor in his book, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins seemed to understand instinctually that laughing and smiling made him feel better and eased his pain significantly. Indeed, a substantial body of research supports the healing power of “LOL.”
It is recognized that laughter increases pain tolerance, most likely by stimulating endogenous endorphins and leading to an opiate-like effect, in the same way that exercise accomplishes this. Laughter also affects neuroendocrine markers of stress. Among a small cohort of healthy males, during and after viewing a 60-minute humor video, laughter reduced serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, and DOPAC (3,4-dihydrophenylacetic acid—the major catabolite of dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and growth hormone).
A Korean study showed that a “therapeutic laughter program” was effective for reducing anxiety and depression in breast cancer patients. The most significant reduction in self-assessed stress, anxiety and depression compared to baseline occurred after the first session, with smaller reductions occurring in subsequent sessions. And of course, as the researchers said, inducing laughter is noninvasive and easy to implement, and let’s not forget—free of adverse side-effects, unless we count sore abdominal muscles from laughing so hard. Other researchers have pointed out that laughter is “practically lacking in contraindications”—this is a suite of things in laughter’s favor that is unmatched by just about any pharmaceutical drug or even dietary intervention. (Plus, it’s free!)
Laughter therapy is especially interesting because it can be implemented at will, anytime, anywhere. In this sense, laughter is not unlike stress, oddly enough. In the stress response, the mind may be able to distinguish between a “real” threat and a perceived threat, but the body cannot. The physiological changes that occur during what is interpreted as an acutely stressful situation occur whether or not the situation is actually dangerous or life-threatening. The physiological changes induced by laughter are similar in that they occur from “spontaneous laughter” (triggered by external stimuli or positive emotions) and from “self-induced” or “simulated” laughter (triggered by oneself at will), because the body does not distinguish the source of why the laughter is occurring. So benefits may be experienced whether the laughter is genuine or “faked.”
Based on positive effects of laughter on endothelial function, a study author said he “envisioned a time when physicians might recommend that everyone get 15 to 20 minutes of laughter in a day in the same way they recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise.” Another researcher even said “a chuckle a day keeps the doctor away,” while another claimed humor is “an antidote for stress.”
“Laughter yoga” is becoming more popular, as a way to combine the positive effects of yoga with laughter. It has been shown to improve mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplants, decrease stress among cancer patients prior to chemotherapy, and improve general feelings of psychological wellbeing, including among Parkinson’s patients and their caregivers. Laughter also upregulates gene expression related to natural killer cell activity, which may bolster the immune system and increase disease resistance among cancer and HIV patients.
Who knew? Being distracted by silly videos online might be bad for productivity, but good for health!