By Allan Richter
Looking to boost your levels of both well-being and joy? Try laughing more.
People have been tapping into the healing power of laughter since the writer Norman Cousins famously recognized mirth as a source of vitality in his groundbreaking 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness (W.W. Norton). It chronicles Cousins’ recovery from a painful spinal condition—in part through pain-reducing laughter sessions that let him sleep peacefully.
Today, laughter is known to have a wide array of healthcare applications.
Laughing in the Face of Illness
In fact, laughter has become so recognized for its ability to lift the spirits that it is being used in hospital settings, often with those who have the most to be concerned about.
In a small triangular meeting room of a Philadelphia institution, a dozen cancer patients and some of their family and caregivers suspended reality for 45 minutes. Urged on by a therapist who assumed the role of tour guide, the group escaped on a much-needed vacation to Hawaii without stepping foot out of the room. They laughed all the way there.
Mimicking an airliner carrying them off, they extended their arms and flew in circles around the room; imaginary welcome drinks awaited their landing. They scampered on sun-baked sand and fished along the Hawaiian shoreline. They fluttered around a tropical garden like butterflies and hummingbirds.
At the suggestion of therapist Gerri Delmont to “key down,” they ended the trip, gathering handfuls of sand and gazing calmly into the ocean.
Each exercise began with artificial laughter—a series of prompted “hee hee, ha ha, ho ho” chants. Those gave way to the genuine giggles, cheer and glee that were the real aim of the therapy.
A half-hour after the session ended, patient Mary Domina still wore a broad smile. “I feel bright, jubilant, alive,” she said. “It was just like a shot of oxygen. When I get in a bad mood, I’m going to think ‘hee hee, ha ha, ho ho.’”
Standing near Domina in the Philadelphia branch of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Scot St. Pierre said the laughter therapy was like a religious cleansing of the soul. “It almost feels like you’ve been to church,” said St. Pierre, whose mother Madona, a patient, likened the therapy’s effects to the tranquility she feels from watching the sea.
The Science of Laughter
One study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine showed the positive effects of laughter on cardiovascular health.
Healthy volunteers watched two movies shown at the extreme ends of the emotional scale: the furiously violent opening D-Day scene of Saving Private Ryan and a segment of the comedy Kingpin. Laughter provoked by the second clip appeared to cause the endothelium, or inner lining of the participants’ blood vessels, to expand in order to increase blood flow.† In contrast, the stress response from watching the first clip triggered vasoconstriction, or reduced blood flow, within the vessels.
Overall, average blood flow increased 22% during laughter and decreased 35% during stress—even among those who had previously seen Ryan and knew what to expect.†
In another study, just the anticipation of laughter led to a 27% increase in beta-endorphins, substances that promote feelings of well-being, and an 87% increase in human growth hormone when compared with a control group.†
What’s more, even laughter without any humor at all appears to be beneficial. “You get the physical neurochemical effects relative to the laughter experience,” says Lee Burk, DrPH, MPH. Burk compares artificial laughter to the use of a stationary bicycle or treadmill: They don’t bring anyone anywhere, but provide the same benefit to people who bike or walk the same distance from, say, their homes to their jobs.
Burk, who has done extensive research in the subject, recalls one study participant who was “a pathologist, and pathologists aren’t necessarily known for having a great sense of humor. When we had IVs in his arm taking the blood sample, and he was watching what he thought was a humorous video, humor he selected, we thought we were wasting the whole experiment because he wasn’t boisterous or laughing out loud.
Yet when we got his data, he was similar in terms of stress hormone reduction to a psychiatrist we had done who was very overt and very boisterous.”†
Laughter and Stress Management
This research supports the idea that humor, even without laughter, changes negative emotions such as chronic anger, anxiety and depression. And the research that such “distressing” emotions lead to illness, including heart disease, is well documented, says clinical psychologist Steven Sultanoff, PhD.
“My belief is that we are going to eventually find that the most dramatic health benefit of humor is not in laughter,” Sultanoff says. “It’s actually in the cognitive and emotional management that humor gives. Humor changes negative thinking patterns.”
Allen Klein, a self-described San Francisco-based “jollytologist, ”says he teaches humor, not laughter, “to show people that no matter what the situation, you can lighten up.”
Sultanoff does not discount the benefits of laughter, however. “Probably the best research is on pain tolerance,” he says. “With deep heartfelt laughter, tolerance to pain appears to go up.”†
Laughing Your Way to Weight Loss
Indeed, hearty laughter, artificial or not, may not replace a sweaty aerobic workout, but it does burn calories. Researchers at Vanderbilt University gathered 90 people who watched comedy video clips, including the movie There’s Something About Mary and episodes of Saturday Night Live.
The researchers concluded that laughing burned about 1.3 calories per minute—about 10% to 20% more than in a calm state. The benefit is akin to what you’d get doing some light indoor gardening, while jogging burns about 10 calories per minute. Still, based on that finding, 10 to 15 minutes of laughter a day could help you drop as much as four pounds a year.†
“The act of laughing out loud vigorously has benefits similar to a workout,” says health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD. “It increases heart rate and stimulates deep breathing.”†
A growing number of proponents of laughter as medicine are embracing the idea that harnessing self-driven laughter can yield tremendous therapeutic benefits.
Laughter enthusiasts trace the movement to Madan Kataria, MD, himself inspired by Cousins. Kataria started a playful form of laughter yoga in Mumbai, India, in 1995. Steve Wilson, a psychologist, met Kataria three years later and picked up the torch, creating a training program (www.worldlaughtertour.com) through which therapists become Certified Laughter Leaders who direct sessions and laughter clubs.
Certified Laughter Leaders have been dispatched to help families of military who have shipped out to war zones or returned home with permanent injuries. They’ve also helped train teachers to introduce laughter into the classroom, hoping to develop more receptive students.
At the laughter therapy session at the Philadelphia cancer hospital, patients, their family members and hospital staff appeared to shift from the artificial laughter into heartfelt giggles and sincere laughs very quickly.
Delmont, the Certified Laughter Leader who guided the session, explains that the deeper their anxiety, the more open participants are to laughing. “The higher the stress, the quicker they fly into a relaxed state,” Delmont says. “The pendulum swings equally.”
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.