It’s not just fun: laughter is good for us
It seems that humor is actually quite a serious business. We all know how getting our daily smile at a funny news item seems to set us up for what lies ahead, and have experienced the rush of an uncontrolled belly laugh, but it seems that laughter actually has some pretty profound health benefits.
The first and most apparent benefit from laughing is stress relief. Obviously, laughing helps take our minds off things that are worrying us, and helps to put them in perspective. However, it also causes immediate physical changes in our bodies that contribute to the stress-relieving effects. When we give a loud guffaw, we draw in large volumes of air, which stimulates our hearts, muscles and lungs. We also release endorphins in our brains – these are the biological compounds that make us feel happy and reduce our perception of pain. Laughter also stimulates circulation and helps our muscles to relax, both of which directly relieve the symptoms of stress.
However, laughter isn’t just a quick hit – it has many other long-term benefits. To start with, it tends to banish negative thoughts, which in turn have a negative effect on our immune systems. It also has a direct positive effect – it causes us to release chemicals that help us fight stress and potentially ward off serious illnesses. The pain-relieving effects of laughter are also long-term – yes, we release endorphins, but laughter also helps us to fight pain by breaking self-reinforcing patterns that lead to long-term pain, especially in some muscle disorders.
There is actually a lot of serious research to back this up. For example, a study by Mary Bennett and others from the Indiana State University School of Nursing looked at the effects of laughter and what implications this might have for cancer patients. They showed one group of subjects a humorous video, while they showed a control group a rather boring tourism video – apparently home movies of people’s vacations really do put people to sleep. What they found was that stress was significantly reduced in the group who viewed the humorous video, and that the activity of their natural killer (NK) cells was increased. NK cells play an important part in fighting off cancer and even HIV – those with low NK cell activity tend to be less resistant to these diseases – and die more often and more quickly.
It seems that while laughter may be the best medicine, music may run it a close second. A research review carried out in 2013 by psychologists at McGill University in Montréal showed that music reduces the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, improves immune function, and even reverses age-related deterioration in some cases. This demonstrates the importance of promoting music in our society, as Lois Pope did recently when she made a major donation to the Palm Beach Symphony. You can find Lois Pope news about this and other activities of her LIFE Foundation on Twitter.
You never know, there may be a trend to combine music and humor, leading to a revival of some country hits of the past. If you have never listened to Johnny Cash growling out “A Boy Named Sue,” or Loretta Lynn singing “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” now might be a good time.