Experts Take the Benefits of Laughter Seriously

We’ve all heard the saying that laughter is the best medicine. You might even be familiar with the similarly named column in Reader’s Digest, “Laughter, the Best Medicine.” But is laughter really cure-all it’s purported to be?

Benefits of Laughter

Nowadays, not only is it common knowledge that laughter has all sorts of physical and mental health benefits, there’s even an organization called the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (http://www.aath.org/ (http://www NULL.aath NULL.org/)), which is made up of more than 600 doctors and health care professionals who study the effects of humor on humans. Here’s what they’re discovering:

Laughter decreases the amount of stress hormones in the body and increases the activity of natural killer cells that go after tumour cells.

• It has also been shown to activate the cells that boost the immune system and to increase levels of immune system hormones that fight viruses.

• By the time a child reaches kindergarten, he or she is laughing some 300 times a day. Compare that to the typical adult who, one study found, laughs a paltry 17 times a day.

• Three minutes of deep belly laughing is the equivalent of three minutes on a fitness rowing machine.

• When you laugh, your heart rate goes up. You increase the blood flow to the brain, which increases oxygen. Laughter increases your respiratory rate. You breathe faster. Your lungs expand. It’s almost like jogging, only you never have to leave the house.

• When you have a deep-down belly laugh, the kind that shakes you, it releases anti-depressant mood chemicals.

• With laughter, there is an increased production of catecholmanines. This increases the level of alertness, memory, and ability to learn and create.

• Learning to appreciate humour, especially complex humour like irony, can help increase mental flexibility.

After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state. Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed.

Laughter and Psychological Well-Being

Laughter is good social glue, too. It connects us to others and counteracts feelings of alienation. That’s why telling a joke, particularly one that illuminates a shared experience or problems, increases our sense of belonging.

Want to be more creative? Try laughing more. Humour loosens up the mental gears and encourages looking at things from a different, out-of-the-ordinary perspective.  Exercising your funny bone on a regular basis encourages mental flexibility and makes you happier, too.

Besides spackling together our conversations and relieving tension, humour and laughter are coping mechanisms. They provide distance and perspective when situations are otherwise horrible. Laughter is one way to dissipate hurt and pain. By reframing what at first seems like a difficult situation, you can make the unbearable seem bearable.

How Laughter Can Help with Emotional Eating

Given the benefits of laughter listed above, it’s no wonder that humour helps emotional eating.  By relieving the tension of difficult situations, humour can provide a welcome distraction and prevent you from running to the fridge.

By finding a way to laugh more, the natural chemicals in your brain that regulate mood will help even out your emotions, thus boosting your resistance to overeating on a physiological level too.

If you tend to overeat in the company of friends and family, focusing the dinner conversation on topics of humour can help you slow the pace of your eating and enjoy the experience more.  Besides, it’s hard to laugh out loud with your mouth full, right?

Want to Inoculate Yourself with Laughter?

Humour guru William Fry, M.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University recommends this two-step process.

“First figure out your humour profile,” he said.  Listen to yourself for a few days and see what makes you laugh out loud. Be honest with yourself.  Don’t fake a preference for dry British humour if your heartiest laughs come from watching “Family Guy” (my personal favourite).

Next, use your comic profile to start building your own humour library: books, magazines, videos. If possible, set aside a portion of your bedroom or den as a “humour corner” to house your collection. Then, when life gets you down, don’t hesitate to visit. “Even a few minutes of laughter,” says Fry, “will provide some value.”

Try organizing a social event that centres on humour. Visit a local comedy club, go see a funny movie, or host a game night featuring fun board games like “Cranium” or “Twister.” Not only will this be good for you, but you can pass on the benefits to the people you care about, strengthening bonds and breaking the usual monotony of dinner and drinks.

There’s also a new movement making waves called “laughter yoga.” Many urban communities offer classes or “laughter clubs.” The laughter is infections, and once you start, you can’t stop.  Check out local listings and give it a try!