Author: Lorren Lemmons
We know that a life filled with laughter is often a life filled with joy. Proverbs 17:22 teaches, “A merry heart doeth good like medicine,” but just how literal is that statement? Can laughter actually affect our physical health in beneficial ways?
Scientists haven’t found many definitive answers, partly because subjective qualities like sense of humor or level of amusement are hard to track. However, plenty of studies show that laughter is associated with many health benefits.
Try to remember the last time you laughed so hard your sides ached, whether from a family member, friend, or pet being silly or a ridiculous meme. How did you feel afterward? Did you lie back on the couch with a sigh and a warm, happy glow in your body?
In general, when we experience strong emotions, whether they are positive emotions like joy and laughter or negative ones like anger or despair, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Commonly known as fight-or-flight, this system increases our alertness and ability to flee from danger by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, the amount of air we take in, and even the amount of blood being sent to essential organs and muscles. Activating fight-or-flight sounds like a bad thing, but in the case of laughter, this initial burst of nervous energy is followed by a period of muscle relaxation that can last up to forty-five minutes.
Sisters and writers Amelia and Emily Nagoski write extensively about the stress cycle, a pattern where our primal fight-or-flight responses are triggered by modern stresses like work, current events, or being irritated by others. Before modern times, when that fight-or-flight response was triggered, humans typically went through some sort of stress response that led to burning off the excess energy triggered by this reaction and then a resting period afterward. Because we typically don’t have to run from saber-toothed tigers or fight to the death when we are stressed anymore, sometimes the excess energy stimulated by our fight-or-flight response can stay pent up in our bodies. Laughter and the relaxation that follows it can help us expend that energy and get into a more relaxed state.
Have you ever heard the proverb that happy people live the longest? While happiness isn’t a cure-all, there are signs that the act of laughing can increase the activity of your immune system.
Several scientific studies have examined the relationship between laughter and the immune system, and some results show that laughing can increase the activity of natural killer, or NK, cells. These are white blood cells that attack cancerous cells but leave healthy cells alone, making them one of our best defenses against cancer and other diseases. They also fight against viral diseases.
People who watched a funny movie were shown to have increased NK cell activity compared to those who watched a neutral or dramatic movie, and this effect was shown to last for up to twelve hours. If we have a regular “dose” of good humor, we may be protecting our bodies from harmful illnesses.
Laughter has also been shown by psychologists to decrease our perceived stress. When we experience prolonged stress, our bodies produce higher levels of a hormone called cortisol. While cortisol definitely has important roles in the body, excess levels can cause decreased immunity, weight gain, and slower wound healing. Finding ways to laugh in times of stress, therefore, can have a number of positive effects on your overall health by boosting your immunity, preventing weight gain that is due to stress, and allowing your body to heal.
We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high” from endorphins––an actual physiological sense of euphoria that can happen when you exercise. Laughter can stimulate many chemicals, including endorphins, that lead to a positive mood.
Our brains produce different chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters interact with our nervous system to affect our mood, muscle activity, pain response, and more. Some studies indicate that laughter may increase the availability of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is increased when someone takes an antidepressant, and a higher amount usually leads to decreased depression and increased well-being.
Laughter has also been shown to increase the release of endorphins. Endorphins interact with the same receptors in your brain that are affected by opioid drugs (narcotics like morphine, oxycodone, and percocet). The more endorphins present in the brain, the more the receptors are activated, resulting in a sense of well-being and often a decrease in the perception of pain.
Mental and Emotional Well-Being
In my experiences as a pediatric bone marrow transplant nurse, I remember seeing patients using humor to cope with their situation. One little girl loved to spray silly string around her hospital room and sometimes she held nurses hostage in the bathroom until they let her squirt them in the face with water. Even on her most difficult days, there was a sense of light around her because she was always looking for ways to be silly and find joy.
As we laugh with others, we form bonds and create shared memories. Part of this can be attributed to physiology––when endorphins are released, our brains are essentially trained to seek these experiences again, which will lead us to want to be with people that make us laugh. When we laugh, one of the parts of our brains that light up on an MRI is the memory center.
Some of the positive effects we experience are less quantifiable. We simply feel lighter, happier, better able to cope. Some doctors prescribe laughter therapy as an alternative or complementary medical practice to help their patients cope with disease or trauma, and many of them respond on surveys that the experience helped.
Laughter can change our insights, our coping mechanisms, and even our biological responses to the world around us. When we choose to “be of good cheer,” we can find not only increased joy in our circumstances but greater health in the temples of our spirits.