How Laughing Out Loud Promotes Health and Heals Disease
Everyone loves to laugh, but few people know how much truth is contained by the words “laughter is the best medicine.” The natural gift of laughter confers outstanding medicinal benefits. Laughter therapy can improve mental and physical well-being, and its therapeutic effects are even being applied towards the treatment of serious health conditions, including cancer.
The History of Healing with Laughter
Laughter therapy (or humor therapy, as it’s sometimes called) is the practice of intentionally initiating laughter to relieve physical or emotional stress and promote overall health and wellness.
As long ago as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from pain. Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness, first seriously undertook the scientific study of laughter’s healing impact. Cousins published his book in 1979 after he himself used humor to sustain himself through a grueling and prolonged battle with a serious disease.
Now, hospitals around the globe are incorporating laughter therapy programs into their practices. In India, laughing clubs — where participants meet each morning solely for the purpose of sharing a laugh — are gaining tremendous popularity. Laughter therapy is also taking hold in the West. The Pentagon has even begun training military families to use these techniques.
Some integrative cancer treatment centers, such as the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), are incorporating laughter therapy into their cancer treatment protocols. According to the CTCA, “Laughter is a natural medicine. It lifts our spirits and makes us feel happy. Laughter is a contagious emotion. It can bring people together. It can help us feel more alive and empowered.”
Studies show that laughter may significantly boost health in myriad ways. Just some of the functions of laughter include its ability to:
• Boost the immune system and circulatory system
• Enhance oxygen intake
• Stimulate the heart and lungs
• Relax muscles throughout the body
• Trigger the release of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers)
• Ease digestion/soothe stomach aches
• Relieve pain
• Balance blood pressure
• Improve mental functions (i.e., alertness, memory, creativity)
In addition, the immediate pleasure we feel while laughing can offer surprisingly long-term benefits, including sustained improvement in overall attitude…relaxation…sleep…quality of life…social bonds and relationships…and well-being.
The Science of Laughter
Many of laughter’s positive effects are the result of the hormones laughter stimulates, called catecholamines. Catecholamines trigger the release of endorphins — the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, capable of reducing pain and stimulating elation.
Once your body is awash in this “happy juice,” you’ll automatically begin to feel more content and relaxed. According to a research team at Texas A&M University, each laugh relieves stress…reduces anxiety … lifts energy…and even cultivates hope. In fact, the team found that laughter therapy could lead to significant increases in hopefulness.
David H. Rosen, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told Science Daily that humor specifically fosters hope by blocking negative thoughts with positive ones. The positive emotions generated through humor can increase a person’s perceived ability to overcome an obstacle, an important psychological aspect of hope.
Children also benefit greatly from laughter. Researchers at UCLA did a study that showed that watching funny shows on TV improved children’s tolerance for pain.
In addition, a team from the University of Maryland found that those who watched funny movies compared to those who watched sad ones experienced increased blood flow — an important factor for health and healing.
You Don’t Have to Feel Like Laughing to Heal
Perhaps the best part of laughter therapy — other than how good it feels – is that even if you don’t feel like laughing, you can benefit. Luke Burbank, a National Public Radio reporter, addressed this question in an interview with Steve Wilson, the head of World Laughter Tour, a university-educated psychologist, and a “self-taught joyologist.”
According to Wilson, “All human beings have an original, authentic natural laughter.” His mission is to help us all access that laughter at any time. But, says Wilson, it doesn’t matter if you’re faking it. He and other professionals are convinced that the brain can’t tell if your laughter is legitimate or forced. The physical act of laughter — spontaneous or forced — is enough to relax your muscles…improve your digestion…normalize your heart rate…and enhance blood flow.
Besides, many who start out with a forced laugh find that they very quickly transition into authentic, joyful laughter, especially if they are laughing with others.
In the interests of optimal health, remember the words of e.e. cummings: “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”