Words of Wellness: Humor for Health


Laughter: maybe the best medicine

One of my favorite poems is “Diagnosis” by Sharon Olds (You can find the poem at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/11/19). In this poem, a mother is deathly worried about “funny looks” that sometimes appear on her baby’s face. Fearing her child possessed, she takes her to the doctor, who, after a thorough assessment, identifies the “funny looks” as smiles and laughter; he “diagnoses” the baby with a sense of humor! The mother in this poem has become so caught up in worry, hoping that her daughter is normal and well, that she fails to tap into the opportunity for laughter and connection with her child.

Beyond just being fun, laughter has been scientifically proven to have health benefits. Michael Miller, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore, found that people who respond to stressful events with humor were significantly less likely to have suffered from heart attacks. In a related study, he found that when people saw a funny movie, blood flow increased in their brachial artery, which is good for the cardiovascular system. Scary movies, however, made blood flow slow down. Dr. Miller suggests that people not only exercise to keep their heart healthy, but make sure they’re laughing at least 15 minutes a day as well!

In addition to helping the heart, the act of laughing involves an increase in the intake of oxygen – your have to suck in more air when you’re laughing! This gives your blood more oxygen to distribute throughout your body, which helps keep you alert and keeps your organs functioning smoothly. Laughter also causes a decrease in your body’s level of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These are the hormones that make you feel tense or anxious. When the levels of these hormones go down, your body can return to a resting state, and begin to relax again.

Beyond the physical benefits, laughter is about connecting with other people. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist who studies laughter, focuses his research on the social connection that is established when people laugh with one another. He believes, in fact, that laughter has so many health benefits because it’s such a pro-social activity. His reasoning goes like this: when people are connected in positive ways, they feel less stressed, and this lack of stress leads to better heart health and a strong immune system.

Does it matter whether laughter directly causes health benefits or indirectly helps you out by improving your relationships with others? Not really! Either way, laughter is associated with feeling good.

So how can you use this research to improve your own health? Some people naturally have a well-developed sense of humor, but for others, it takes a little more practice. Here are some ideas:

First, surround yourself with people with whom you can have a good time. Laughter is contagious. If you’re with fun and funny people, laughter is more likely to be a part of your daily experience.

It’s also good to know what makes you chuckle, and make those things easily available to yourself. Some of my go-tos include Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the music from Flight of the Conchords, and the book The Princess Bride. Think about things that makes you laugh, and have them close by.

One of the best ways to really sharpen your sense of humor is by learning to laugh at yourself. You’re with yourself 24 hours a day. When you can pick out the silly, funny, or downright ridiculous in your own life, you have a lot of opportunities to find humor. You don’t have to be self-deprecating, but sometimes imagining your life like one of those sitcoms where everything seems to go wrong for the main character is a good way to put things into perspective. We all have bad days; if you can laugh about yours, they’ll seem much easier to handle. On a related note, dare to try something new. You may think, “What if someone laughs at me?” But if you use the opportunity to laugh at yourself and also learn a new skill, it’s a win-win.

Finally, don’t forget your animal friends. Pets provide a great opportunity for laughter. If you don’t have an animal yourself, think about volunteering with the North Country Animal League in Morrisville, or with your humane society at home.

Having a sense of humor simply means we have the ability to pick up on the funny things that go on around you. Cultivating this sense can help us relate to one another, feel better about ourselves, and literally become physically healthier. Like the mother in “Diagnosis,” it can be hard to remember that humor exists at all when life becomes overwhelming. But keep your eyes and ears open. The opportunity for laughter is all around you!