Laughter has always been some of the best medicine, and there is compelling research to prove it.
Norman Cousins is one of the best-known proponents of the happiness-health connection, a journey that began after he was diagnosed with a debilitating illness and noticed that the depressing hospital setting seemed to exacerbate his symptoms.
He then essentially took his health into his own hands, and after getting his doctor’s approval checked out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he watched funny movies – his favorite choices included the Marx brothers - and relaxed in an environment that was anything but a sickroom.
His results led him to devote the rest of his life exploring the relationship between good humor and good health, and though some conventional physicians tend to scoff, there is clear evidence that Cousins was right.
Happier people live longer
A 2011 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reviewed research from 150 different studies, and found that happiness – less stress and less depression – did lead to better health.
“All else being equal, happy people tend to live longer and experience better health than their unhappy peers,” researchers said.
“We reviewed eight different types of studies,” said Ed Diener, a professor emeritus at the university and a researcher at Gallup Corp. in Princeton, N.J. “And the general conclusion from each type of study is that your subjective well-being -- that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed -- contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations.”
It makes a lot of sense, though, since those who see the glass as half full are less troubled by small bumps in the road, so they have more happiness reserves than the half-empties when a more serious event such as illness occurs.
As effective as exercise?
When Cousins compared a good laugh with a morning run, he might have been onto something.
“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors,” said Cousins. “Laughter is inner jogging.”
The same benefits that come with exercise – including less stress, lower cholesterol and blood pressure and a tougher immune system – also come with regular laughter.
"The effects of laughter and exercise are very similar," psychologist Steve Wilson told WebMD.com.
Researchers at California’s Loma Linda University (ref.1) studied the impact of laugher on two hormones associated with hunger – ghrelin, which signals hunger, and leptin, which tells us when we’re full – and found that laughter increased levels of ghrelin about as much as a workout (ref.3).
The study opens the doors to treating failing appetites with comedy. Failing appetites are often associated with various ailments such as heart disease, renal conditions and some eating disorders. By addressing failing appetites, this study suggests that some health benefits may come from laughter and comedy.
“It's fascinating that positive emotions resulting from behaviors such as mirthful laughter translate into so many types of mechanism optimizations. As the old biblical wisdom states, it may indeed be true that laughter is a good medicine,” said Dr Lee S Burk (ref.2), who headed the study.
It also has an impact on heart rates, experts say.
In fact, researcher William Fry said it would take 10 minutes on a rowing machine to get the same heart-healthy benefits as a minute of laughter.
Accentuate the positive
In honor of the International Day of Happiness, here are some good reasons to laugh a little on March 20 – and every day after that.
- Improved blood flow. Researchers at the University of Maryland showed people comedies and dramas, and later compared the impact of each activity on blood vessels. Those who watched the drama tended to be tenser, resulting in restricted blood flow, while those who watched the comedies had blood vessels that expanded and constricted normally.
- A better immune system. Experts have found that stress – especially chronic stress – has a big impact on our immune systems, and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Happiness and good humor can elevate the level of infection-fighting antibodies and immune cells, making illness less likely.
- Lower blood sugar. A study of people with diabetes found that blood sugar levels were lower after they laughed at a comedy than they were after they attended a boring lecture, even though the subjects had eaten the same meal before each event.
- Easier rest and relaxation. In his book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” Cousins said that for every 10 minutes of laughter he was able to get two hours of pain-free, restorative sleep, better allowing him to cope with his illness.
- Lower stress. Stress causes all sorts of negative reactions in the body, including a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure and a flood of stress hormones. Many of us live under an almost constant umbrella of stress, struggling to juggle home, family and work responsibilities, resulting in a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Left unchecked, those stress hormones can cause heart problems, weight gain, diabetes and other serious illnesses.
Anatomy of a laugh
When we laugh, we engage our entire body in the act. At least 15 different muscles in the face are called into action, along with our respiratory system and other muscle groups.
But more importantly, laughter sends serotonin levels soaring in the brain, erasing mild depression in just a few minutes.
The lack of the feel-good chemical serotonin has also been linked to aggressive behavior, higher levels of irritability and lower impulse control, as well as eating and sleep problems, suggesting that laughter can prevent fights, help keep diets under control and ensure a good night’s sleep, just like Cousins said.
Give happiness levels a boost
So what if you’re not, by nature, a happy person? There are ways to give happiness levels a boost.
- Natural mood boosters. Supplements such as Xtend-Life’s Neuro-Natural Serenity, which includes 43 ingredients designed to help support emotional wellbeing and boost mood, can help ease stress by elevating levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain.
- Exercise. The quickest way to feel better is to get moving. A brisk walk can get endorphins flowing, giving you the same feel-good boost as a shot of morphine, without the risk of drug addiction. According to WebMD, exercise helps you manage pain better, helps you sleep better and helps you feel sexier, giving you incentive for the next exercise session, as well.
- Fake it until you make it. If you act happy, people see you as happy, and you see yourself through their eyes. You feel happy. Start with a smile to help you break free of the doldrums.
“Happiness is no magic bullet,” said Diener. “But the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young.”
1. Loma Linda University – Dr Lee S Berk http://www.llu.edu/pages/faculty/directory/portfolio_activity.php?uid=lberk&catid=5
2. Dr Lee S. Berk
3. Dr Lee S. Berk’s study http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090417084115.htm