Why laughter is so important

Laughter is one of the 3 elements of preventative medicine

Laughter is essential for our body, mind, relationships, and even success. Without laughter in your life, you're in serious trouble, writes David Goding.

The fact that laugher isn’t taken more seriously is, well, laughable. While we all know that having a good laugh makes us feel good, we give little credit for the myriad of other benefits imparted by the funny stuff. You could mount a good case, for instance, for laughter becoming one of the big three elements of preventative medicine along with exercise and a healthy diet. But whereas we know that exercise does more for us than make us sweat, laughter is marginalised as an act of meaningless frivolity. It’s enough to make you cry.

Laughter as a means of communication

“You may have forgotten, but during your early childhood, laughter was your only means to communicate pleasure, joy and happiness,” says Lesley Lyle, founder of Laughter Business and author of Laugh Your Way to Happiness.

“Now you may have become one of the majority of adults who are estimated to laugh an average of 15 times a day, unlike children who laugh and giggle between 300 to 500 times each day.”

And it’s only getting worse. According to a study conducted by German psychologist Michael Titze, 60 years ago we laughed three times as much as we do now. In another 20 years, laughter could be endangered, a frowned-upon practice only conducted by lunatics and certainly never to be undertaken in a public place.

Fortunately, science has stepped in to make some sense of the serious shortage of laughter.
“Research has shown that people who frequently laugh and smile are likely to enjoy a higher income, have better relationships and better health, live longer and are regarded as more attractive by others,” says Lyle.

“Laughter changes us. It changes our brain chemistry and our body, our perceptions, emotions and attitudes. Laughter changes the people around us too, whether they are family or friends or complete strangers. No one is immune to the sound of laughter and how it makes you feel.”

Laugh for your body
The health benefits of laughter were first pointed out by Dr Passkind, in 1934. He called it gelotology and claimed that laughter improved breathing and circulation as more oxygen was facilitated, helping the lungs to filter toxins and improve the functions of the cardiac muscles.

Though widely laughed at at the time, he now appears to have been mostly right in his assumptions. Several studies have confirmed that yes, laughter benefits the heart and relaxes the arteries, reducing blood pressure and increasing blood flow for up to 45 minutes, comparable to aerobic exercise.

In fact, according to studies conducted by Dr Michael Miller from the University of Maryland, laughing for 15 minutes every day can significantly reduce your chances of suffering a heart attack.

Laughter offers benefits at a cellular level too. A Japanese study conducted by geneticist Kazuo Murakami found that the stimulating effect of laughter creates energy within a person’s DNA that may potentially be capable of curing disease.

Further research suggests that laughter helps to increase the number of virus killer cells, activated T cells and B cells as well as the important immunity antibody immunoglobulin A, boosting immunity and speeding up recovery from illness.

If you have diabetes you may also have reason to laugh. A study conducted by Dr Murakami of 19 people with diabetes found that blood sugar levels were lower after eating a meal and watching a comedy than they were after eating the same meal and enduring a tedious lecture video.

If you laugh enough, it may even be used as a weight loss tool. A ‘laughing workout’ consisting of 15 minutes of chuckling, chortling and belly-laughing burns the same amount of calories as a medium-sized chocolate bar, and 100 laughs – if you can manage to laugh and count at the same time – is equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

Laugh for your mind
The wellbeing of our mind relies on laughter – it puts thoughts into perspective, diffuses tension and relieves stress.

“Laughter has been shown to reduce the levels of epinephrine and cortisol, the hormones the body creates when we are stressed,” says Lyle.

“These stress hormones suppress the immune system and increase the number of blood platelets that can cause obstructions in the arteries and raise blood pressure.”

In Baltimore, USA, research has found that people who laughed most were least likely to be angry or hostile – factors that can lead to an increase in blood pressure, constricted blood vessels and heart disease.

The fact that laughter is so effective at relieving stress may be because it interacts with it, says Lyle.

“Even when we laugh at a joke, it is because we have experienced a type of stress. Jokes are told like stories, so as we listen, we follow the logic of what we are being told and anticipate what will happen next. The skill of the joke-teller is to unbalance us: what we expect to happen does not take place, and at the last moment, with the punch line, the story goes in a completely different direction,” she says.

“The effect of this is to cause momentary confusion of our thoughts and emotions, causing stress, but our laughter relieves this stress and leads us to feeling amused.”
Laughter can also be used as a powerful brain-centred pain reliever, as discovered by laughter therapy pioneer Norman Cousins, who claimed that 10 minutes of belly laughing could relieve pain for up to two hours by releasing endorphins and enkephalins – the body’s natural pain-suppressing opioids.

For this reason, laughter has proved to be highly beneficial in helping to manage the pain of arthritis as well as other chronic conditions involving muscular pain.

Laugh with others
Laughter, like yawning, is infectious, which is the very reason they put ‘canned’ laughter into comedy shows. If you hear somebody else laugh, you’re far more likely to laugh yourself, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re laughing. This is the action of our brain’s ‘mirror neurons’.
“Laughter triggers a reaction in our brain that is outside of our conscious awareness,” says Lyle. “It is possible to resist but it takes effort to overcome this automatic response. As soon as we see or hear someone laugh, our neurons are stimulated and they ‘fire off’ so that we have an automatic response and laugh too.”

Laughing with another person – your partner, friend or family member – creates a bond of intimacy and trust. As comedian Victor Borge put it, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.”

It may even contribute to a more productive workplace. Studies have revealed that people who laughed the most had higher levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline – the ‘arousal’ hormones that produce sharpness of thought. It also provides the brain with oxygen, allowing it to function to its full potential while remaining calm and relaxed.

Laughter therapists are increasingly being called on to hold group corporate laughter sessions with a view to creating a happy workplace and improving productivity.
According to a 2007 US study, it’s possible to double overall workplace competency levels simply by incorporating 15 minutes of laughing into the day.

And it doesn’t matter that the laughter is not genuine and you really don’t want to be at work. You receive the same physiological benefits from faking it as you do from genuine laughter.
Keep laughing and you may very well laugh your way to the top. According to research conducted by Hay Group’s McClelland Centre for Research and Innovation, people who laugh frequently get paid more and receive bigger bonuses than those who laugh infrequently.

Laugh in a club
Laughter clubs are communal gatherings of people who get together to practise what is increasingly referred to as ‘laughter yoga’. From humble beginnings 20 years ago, there are now thousands of laughter clubs worldwide.

A typical laughter club meeting starts with breathing exercises and a few simple movements followed by plenty of riotous, belly-shaking laughter. The sessions don’t incorporate any structured attempts at humour – there’s no re-runs of Seinfeld episodes here – though joking around isn’t frowned upon. NH

To find a laughter club in your area, go to laughteryoga-australia.org

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The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis. Read our Medical Notice.