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Is Laughter the Best Medicine for Physical and Mental Pain?

By Martha Michael

Is Laughter Medicine

As it turns out, “Seinfeld” really did know something about comedy. According to experts, most of what we laugh about falls into the category of … well … nothing. What we tend to find funny doesn’t start with “knock knock” or require a pie in the face. It’s largely social communication, which illustrates one of laughter’s main benefits: it connects us with others.

But there’s more to laughter than killing 30 minutes on the couch. There are many ways laughter also contributes to our physical and mental health, from helping to relieve stress to boosting immunities.

April is the month of April Fool’s Day, so take some time to appreciate the laughter. And speaking of fools, here’s to shinkage, big salads, and mastering your domain.

What Causes You to Laugh

There is a structure for creating funny content -- mostly it includes the element of surprise -- but there’s no single formula to cause people to laugh. One’s sense of humor varies from person to person, but laughing is innate and universal -- it’s found in every culture. The laughs of people who have been deaf from birth sound the same as individuals who can hear.

The areas of your brain involved in laughter are from your subcortex, says an article by BBC Future. They are primal -- areas responsible for basic reflexes and breathing. If you’ve noticed how hard it is to stifle your laughter once it starts, it’s because the parts of your brain that control higher function have difficulty controlling the subcortex. As hard as it is to rein in your laughter, it’s just as difficult to make yourself laugh on demand.

Laughter is not just physiological, however. It’s a social phenomenon. Humor that elicits laughter is often a result of shared experiences or inside jokes. It implies an in-group understanding and it’s a more natural form of communication when someone doesn’t intentionally try to bring humor into a situation.

Physical Benefits of Laughter

It may be a tired idea, but there’s plenty of evidence to validate its truth: laughter is the best medicine. When your brain senses humor, it activates the nervous system while signaling motor responses such as smiling and doubling over.

An article by GoodRx Health says there are many health benefits to laughing.

Increased Endorphins

Like a rigorous swim or a race around the track, even a few minutes of laughter circulates endorphins in your body that increases feelings of pleasure and social bonding. According to an article in the Journal of Neuroscience, social laughter increases the opioid release in regions of your brain including:
  • Thalamus
  • Caudate nucleus
  • Putamen nucleus
  • Insular cortex
  • Cingulate cortex
  • Frontal cortex

The brain gets humor.

Heart Health

There’s a relationship between human emotion and your cardiovascular system, with strong evidence linking acute distress to heart failure, according to an article by Science Direct. There’s also a link between mirthful laughter and a healthy heart, in part because it increases blood flow. Laughing signals the secretion of vasoactive chemicals such as nitric oxide, which causes muscle relaxation, reduces vascular inflammation, and lowers your blood pressure.

Immune System Boost

Most people have experienced an intense, serious situation diffused by a joke. When you’re burdened by hard realities, you can feel how much a good laugh immediately lightens the load. Laughter decreases the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, a chemical that suppresses your immune system, and what often results is lower anxiety and better sleep quality.

Higher Pain Tolerance

Laughing has an analgesic effect on the human body. Studies show that patients watching comedy videos required lower levels of pain medication, according to an article in The Royal Society’s biological research journal. If you laugh for a long period of time, it increases the opioid effects and creates a state of euphoria similar to what people experience when dancing or making music.

Mental Health Benefits of Laughter

Emotional pain such as grief or clinical depression can be lessened with levity. According to an article in Psychology Today, there are many ways laughter can improve your mental health.

Deeper relationships - People who laugh together are more likely to talk openly and share in greater depth about themselves. They are open to new relationships and more capable of strengthening the ones they have.

Better memory - Emotional pain increases the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes loss of memory. According to an article in Science Daily, a study at Loma Linda University showed laughing boosts memory as it lowers cortisol levels.

Reduced anxiety - Laughter is a natural way to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for an individual undergoing a stressful situation. Comic relief can influence cognitive function without the need for pharmaceuticals, says an article in Current Research in Physiology. It suppresses the circulation of epinephrine and cortisol, hormones that put your body on high alert, and activates the release of serotonin and dopamine, feel-good chemicals in your brain’s reward center.

Social Benefits of Laughter

Laughing is contagious. In fact, you’re 30 times more likely to laugh when you’re with others than when you’re alone, says an abstract on the website for The Royal Society Publishing. Social contact increases laughter, smiling, and talking.

Though children need less social context to laugh, studies show that toddlers are eight times more likely to laugh at funny content when they’re with others than when they’re alone.

Sharing positive emotions is essential in building cohesiveness between people. Among the benefits of humor and laughter is that it plays a key role in bonding. Social context has a bearing on enjoying activities, including the enjoyment of a relatable joke.

Dr. Robert Provine, a psychologist who studied laughter, found that less than 20 percent of conversational laughter came from anyone’s deliberate attempt to be funny. When you’re spending time with friends, it’s playfulness and positive tone that sparks most people’s laughter. It’s a natural response, but when it’s incited by a speaker, laughter is punctuational. Provine’s research shows the average speaker laughs 46 percent more than members of the audience.

Laughter reminds us that we benefit from our connection to others. Have you tried tickling yourself? Laughter is contagious, and sometimes what you find funny is simply the way someone laughs, not the content of the comment.

How to Start Laughing

An article on the Western Kentucky University News suggests ways to introduce more laughter into your lifestyle.

Smile more often - It’s the first thing you do before you let out a guffaw, so you’re halfway there. Smiling can be contagious just like laughter, so you may invite engagement from someone else who makes you laugh.

Move toward it - If you hear someone laughing, see if it’s a public or private moment. Most joking around is tame enough for onlookers. If you feel comfortable, ask what happened; people are often eager to laugh again.

Befriend playful people - If you have the time for new relationships, you can seek out people who focus on the funny side of things. If you have a tendency to dwell on negative thoughts, it may help you lighten up enough to release some laughter more often.

Choose comedy - There are comedy clubs across the country and plenty of comedies for streaming. Go to the humor section in the bookstore for 45 minutes and see if your mood lifts. You can also look for a laughter yoga class.

Spend time with kids - Children release laughter without the number of filters adults have. Letting yourself engage in silliness reduces stress and it can change your perspective for the better.

It’s great news when you find out something enjoyable is also good for you. It may even make you crack a smile. Laughter has exponential benefits because it not only contributes to physical relaxation that protects you from illness and suppresses negative emotions, a few laughs can lead to more, because laughter is contagious. It’s a natural response that ordinary folks don’t need a laugh track or live audience to understand.

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