The Surprising Facts About Laughter and Health
My seven-month-old daughter Haley is at the stage where she likes to grab things and try to shove them in her mouth. One of her favorite targets? The springy curls of her five-year-old brother. We were playing on the floor together when she crawled over to him and yanked a handful of hair.
“Owwww! Haley hurt me!”
“Haley!” I said, gently extricating her chubby fingers from Ryan’s curls. “Stop beating up your brother.” Then I turned to Ryan. “Can you believe a baby is beating up a five-year-old?” I shook my head. “That is totally crazy!”
Ryan started to laugh. “Yeah, that is crazy! I can’t believe a little baby is beating me up!”
As a mom, I try to put a funny spin on things. And I’m glad to know that laughing not only makes me feel better—it’s actually helping protect my health.
Laughing for a Healthier Life?
“Laughter and health are pretty closely related,” says therapist James Masica, M.A., a public speaker who leads laughter workshops for a variety of audiences. “Laughter is a physical act—it’s different than comedy or humor. The physical act of laughter changes our body chemistry in a number of significant ways. Basically everything that can be made better is made better—your blood pressure drops, your immune system is bolstered, endorphins and serotonin [a brain chemical that produces a feeling of relaxation] are released.”
Published research has proven a link between laughter and the immune system, says Mary Bennett, director of the Western Kentucky University School of Nursing. “There have been several studies looking at different aspects of laughter and health that show that a brief period of laughter boosts the immune system, which fights off disease and helps fight off cancer,” says Bennett.
In addition, laughter has a beneficial effect on cardiovascular function. “When you laugh, you take nice deep breaths, you get more oxygen, and your blood pressure and heart rate go up,” explains Bennett. “Then afterward, they drop. There’s a tension/release effect.”
That tension/release effect also may come into play with how stressed you feel. Bennett performed studies in which people reported how stressed they felt before and after watching a funny video. Those who watched a funny video (compared to those who watched a travel video) reported less stress afterward, while those who watched the travel video had no change in stress levels. This change in perceived stress was attributed to laughing.
Surprisingly, though, even “fake” laughter can produce these kinds of benefits. One often-cited study found that adults who forced themselves to laugh for one minute reported an improved mood afterward. “Normally, we think something funny happens, and then we laugh,” says Masica. “But think of laughing first, and then things seem to be funny. The body doesn’t know and doesn’t care if we’re laughing at our favorite comedy or because we decide to push air out of our diaphragm. Simulated laughter changes your body chemistry just like real laughter.”
It comes as no surprise that adults laugh far less often than children. “The ratio is about one-tenth,” says Masica. “Children laugh about 200 to 300 times a day, while adults laugh 12 to 20 times a day.”
So, how can you boost your own laughter quotient? “Find out what pushes your laughter button and go expose yourself to as much of it as you can,” says Bennett. “A daily dose of laughter is a great thing.”
To embrace a find-the-funny attitude, give these strategies a try:
– Spend time with people who make you laugh. Whether it’s your best friend, you neighbor, or your workout buddy, make time to talk or text with them when you need a little joy.
– Keep a “laughter library.” My own includes books by cartoonists, light-hearted movies, and my favorite sitcom reruns.
– Know what works for you. Everyone has a different sense of humor. I find a cartoon laugh-out-loud funny, while my husband and son crack up at game shows where contestants attempt stunts and wind up plummeting into the water below.
In the end, there’s nothing like the sound of my children laughing together as they play peekaboo. Their laughter is truly joyous—and contagious. And if it’s keeping me healthy too, that’s just a wonderful bonus.
-By Kelly James-Enger