Laughter Is the Best Medicine, Or Is It?

Robin Williams (right) shares a jolly good laugh with his life-long friend and mentor Jonathan Winters at the Biltmore Hotel in Montecito, Calif. in 1991. – File photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones’

By Terry Miller

I was surprised to read recently in the Psychological Bulletin a rather unexpected research result of an overvalued research project on humor and its effects on one’s health.

“There is evidence of stress-moderating effects of humor on physical health variables and no evidence of increased longevity with greater humor. More rigorous and theoretically informed research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about possible health benefits of humor and laughter,” states “Humor, laughter, and physical health: Methodological issues and research findings.”

Still, I don’t believe that over-financed, poppycock research project.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty, it’s really quite funny!

In 1991 I had the pleasure of photographing comedian and movie star Jonathan Winters at his home in Montectio, along with my colleague Monica Prinzing, for a feature story on the storied actor. We were in for some healing laughter which I can only briefly recall as I was laughing so much.

What was supposed to be a one-hour interview turned into an all-day affair where both Prinzing and I were trying not to cry for laughing so much.

I asked Johnathan what his favorite film was. He immediately said, “Come up to my bedroom.” At this point Monica and I were about to “bust a gut” as they say. We went upstairs to his and wife Eileen’s bedroom in their expansive Montecito home. Winters pointed to a giant framed movie poster of the file “The Loved One” in which he played an undertaker.

That experience getting to know Winters led me to a chance meeting with Robin Williams whose idol was, in fact, Winters. That experience (once in a lifetime) was truly hilarious and frankly quite healing. I felt the endorphins and my serotonin levels spike watching and photographing these legends a mere few feet from my Nikon F3.

Laughter certainly decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

Articles in both the lay and professional literature have extolled the virtues of humor, many giving the impression that the health benefits of humor are well documented by the scientific and medical community. The concept that humor or laughter can be therapeutic goes back to biblical times and this belief has received varying levels of support from the scientific community at different points in its history. Current research indicates that using humor is well accepted by the public and is frequently used as a coping mechanism. However, the scientific evidence of the benefits of using humor on various health related outcomes still leaves many questions unanswered.

Who coined “laughter is the best medicine”? Well, that depends on who you read. Some claim it derives from a proverb from the wisdom of Solomon. Proverbs 17:22 read “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” The Bible also proclaims laughter a good medicine, but not the best medicine. According to the good book a good cry is actually better than a hearty laugh. Ecclesiastes 7:3 states: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”

7 Health Benefits of Laughter

  1. Lowers blood pressure. People who lower their blood pressure, even those who start at normal levels, will reduce their risk of stroke and heart attack.
  2. Reduces stress hormone levels.
  3. Works your abs.
  4. Improves cardiac health.
  5. Boosts T-cells.
  6. Triggers the release of endorphins.
  7. Produces a general sense of well-being.

Laughter is strong medicine. It draws people together in ways that trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humor lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you release anger and forgive sooner.

With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use.

As children, we used to laugh hundreds of times a day, but as adults, life tends to be more serious and laughter more infrequent. But by seeking out more opportunities for humor and laughter, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life.

Laughter relaxes the whole body. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.

Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.

Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

Laughter protects the heart. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.

Laughter burns calories. It’s no replacement for going to the gym, but one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn approximately 40 calories—which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.

Laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment.

Laughter may even help you to live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humor outlived those who don’t laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer.

You’ve heard the expression “Laughing all the way to the bank”? Well, the colorful Liberace perhaps coined the phrase after suing the Daily Mirror (UK) in 1959 over an article alleging he was gay. The well- known eclectic musician died of AIDS in 1987.

1 COMMENT

  1. This author, like most journalists, has written a mostly accurate and clear article on the research findings on LAUGHTER but has confused the concepts of humor and laughter as well as the research on the two. In all fairness even the research cited (e.g. the Mayo Clinic Article as well as the Norwegian article confuse the two). To be clear, laughter is a physical experience that does result in health benefits as outlined in the article. As a side note, the direct evidence that endorphins are secreted with laughter is very recent (last 3-5 years) even though it has been assumed to be true for many years. While laughter is a “response,” humor is a stimulus. Humor, and not laughter, is the primary stimulus that fosters the cognitive shift we call perspective and dissolves distressing emotions. It is humor and not laughter that is primarily responsible for the social bonding that occurs. This is not to say that laughter does not account for some emotional and social change, but it is not the main source; humor is. Humor sifts cognition (generates perspective) and dissolves emotional distress. Humor of course also triggers laughter which is easier to observe and research. The true health benefits of humor lie in its ability to trigger laughter, activate perspective, and shift emotional distress and of which result in positive biochemical changes. One final note, the article cited (in the Psychological Bulletin and was written by one of the premier experts in the humor field), suggests more research is indicated and that we need to be careful about our conclusions. This is, of course, absolutely true. We do need to be skeptical and careful about our conclusions. However, that article was published 18 years ago and there has been a great deal of research on humor and laughter since then and most of that research has supported health and wellness benefits of humor.

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