The Health Benefits of Laughter and Humor

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy– we’re happy because we laugh.”  ––William James

It’s a beautiful Fourth of July evening, and you’ve gathered with friends and family at your favorite harbor side restaurant to celebrate. For the occasion, you’ve worn your favorite red, white, and blue silk tie–  a valuable family heirloom passed down through five generations. The waiter comes around with a bottle of red wine and starts pouring. Everything’s going fine until he gets to you, at which point he trips over his shoelaces and sends half the contents of the bottle your way.

What is your reaction? Laughter might not be your first instinct. But after regaining your self-composure, humor could be one of the healthier ways to deal with the staining of your prized patriotic shirt– not to mention the inconvenience of getting drenched.

Laughter smoothes the way through the most awkward situations and helps us cope with the stresses of daily life.  Recent research suggests that laughter is good for us, leading not only to improved mood, but also physical health benefits.

•  When we laugh, we release feel-good endorphins that have been found to reduce physical pain. Journalist Norman Cousins, after being hospitalized for a spinal condition, incorporated laughter into his personal recovery program. He found that watching the Marx brothers every night made him laugh so much that afterward he was able to sleep for at least   2 hours without feeling any pain. 

•   Laughter inhibits the stress hormone, cortisol, which has adverse effects on our

immune functioning. Laughter causes our immune system to produce more  T cells, immune proteins and antibodies. 

•   By increasing our heart rate, laughter benefits our cardiovascular system in a way similar to exercise. In one study, 300 participants split into two groups that watched two different movies. Half of the group watched a comedy (There’s Something About Mary) while the other half watched a drama (Saving Private Ryan). The group who watched the comedy had a 30-40% increased dilation in their blood vessels compared with the group who watched the drama. 

Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore recently found that people with heart disease were less likely to have a sense of humor than their heart-healthy contemporaries.  

Of the 300 participants surveyed, half had healthy hearts while the other half had a history of heart disease. The participants answered a wide range of questions examining the extent to which humor played a role in their everyday lives.  In particular, those who laughed or used humor to cope with stressful situations were less likely to have heart disease.

Dr. Michael Miller, one of the cardiologists involved in the study, believes that incorporating laughter into our everyday routines might be as important for our heart health as diet and exercise. He is not alone. In fact, there are numerous “laughing groups” operating in many U.S. cities with the aim of spreading the benefits of laughter to their practitioners. There is even an entire branch of Yoga devoted to communal laughing, appropriately called Laughter Yoga. Led by a certified instructor, participants of Laughter Yoga get together and, well, laugh. The atmosphere builds on the infectiousness of laughter and playful behavior. Even if you went into the session in a less than elated mood, chances are by the end, your laughter will have evolved into something genuine.

What if life isn’t always funny? 

In his essay “What is an Emotion,” philosopher and psychologist William James posited that smiling and laughter are not the result of a particular emotion, as we tend to think. Rather, these outward physical expressions are that emotion. We don’t laugh because we are happy– we are happy because we laugh. Smiling or laughing at will creates a significant impact on the way we feel. 

As the University of Maryland study suggests, even in situations where life is sad, stressful or just plain not funny, you might benefit from laughing anyway. Think of pretend laughing as playing a joke on your body:  even if you’re not really amused, your body can’t tell the difference. The physical gesture of laughing tricks your body into going through the same healthy physiological processes it does during spontaneous laughter. Laughter, whether forced or spontaneous, can improve mood, reduce stress, improve heart health and strengthen the immune system.

Through funny books, movies, comedy performances, or even funny people encountered in daily life, there’s always an opportunity to work on your sense of humor. Be determined to laugh and your sense of humor will likely improve, as well as your health.