“Laughter serves as a blocking agent. Like a bulletproof vest, it may help protect you against the ravages of negative emotions that can assault you in disease.” Norman Cousins
Laughter is contagious, and one of the few things we actually want to catch. It has incredible power to lift the mood and, some say, heal the body. Laughter is also called “medicine,” without side effects, dosage limits or contraindications.
But is laughter really curative, and if so, how much of a positive effect can it have on your health? Is it a placebo, or are there scientific data to support therapeutic effects?
“Always laugh when you can.” Lord Byron
A study by William B. Strean, PhD, of the University of Alberta entitled “Laughter Prescription,”1 examined the possible benefits of laughter to health.
“With increasing recognition, one might expect that there would be growing application of laughter and humor for their complementary and alternative medical benefits,” wrote Strean, while noting that laughter should be an adjunct, not a replacement for accepted therapies. “It seems, however, that the medical community has been reluctant to embrace and support laughter for health.”
“Laughter is the sound of the soul dancing.” Jarod Kintz
Anecdotal evidence is abundant, as people have been speaking of laughter’s potential medicinal value for centuries. Strean cites an ancient proverb from approximately 700 BC: “A merry heart doeth good like medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”
“The most positive claim that researchers seem willing to make is that 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” wrote Strean.1
However, he also concedes that, “although the evidence demonstrating laughter’s benefits could be stronger, virtually all studies of laughter and health indicate positive results. Similarly, there are almost no negative side effects or undesirable ramifications associated with laughter as an intervention. This is a case in which the appropriate logic might be more akin to the legal perspective of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”
“Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” Mark Twain
In an article in the Journal of the New Jersey Dental Association, “Use of humor to reduce stress and pain and enhance healing in the dental setting,” DR Morse says that, “since there are no negative side effects, [laughter and humor] should be used in the dental setting to help reduce stress and pain and to improve healing.”
“Although scholars and practitioners recognize the value of further study, more replication, and identification of specifics," concludes Strean, "the call for more application of laughter as an intervention seems warranted.”1
Morse observes that various reports provide “substantiation to support what is experientially evident—laughter and humor are therapeutic allies in healing.”
- Laughter might reduce stress and improve natural killer cell activity. As low natural killer cell activity is linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in those with cancer or HIV disease, laughter might be a useful cognitive-behavioral intervention.
- Studies have shown that 50% of cancer patients used humor and 21% of a group of breast cancer patients used humor or laughter therapy.
- Benefits have been reported in geriatrics, oncology, critical care, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care, and general patient care.
- The effect of laughter on the so-called stress hormones: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol is important because if laughter does, in fact, decrease stress hormones, this would be one mechanism that might explain the proposed connection between laughter and immune function, and from there to improved health outcomes.
- “Findings range from suggesting that, in addition to a stress-relief effect,” according to Morse. “Laughter can bring about feelings of being uplifted or fulfilled to showing that the act of laughter can lead to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth, and oxygen consumption. These increases are then followed by a period of muscle relaxation, with a corresponding decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.”2
As Robert Provine, the noted laughter researcher, commented in the documentary Laugh Out Loud, “Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!”
- Strean, William B. “Laughter prescription.” Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 55,10 (2009): 965-7.
- Morse DR. Use of humor to reduce stress and pain and enhance healing in the dental setting. J N J Dent Assoc. 2007 Fall;78(4):32-6. PMID: 18271451.