Laughter has been known as “the best medicine” long before Robin Williams’ movie portrayal of “Patch Adams,” the physician and clown who founded the Gesundheit Institute. In fact, in the 17th century, British physician Thomas Sydenham said,
“The arrival of a good clown into a village does more for its health than 20 asses laden with drugs.”
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, which has more than 3,500 doctors and health care professionals who study the effects of humor on humans.
Here’s what we know:
• Laughter decreases the amount of stress hormones in the body and increases the activity of natural killer cells that go after tumor 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.
• Three minutes of deep belly laughing is the equivalent of three minutes on a fitness rowing
• It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown.
• 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.
• 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.
• With laughter, there is an increased production of catecholmanines. This increases the level of alertness, memory, and ability to learn and create.
• After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state. Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed.
• When you have a deep-down belly laugh, the kind that shakes you, it releases anti-depressant mood
So with all their prods and wires and gizmos and gauges, professionals are telling us what we knew all along: when we laugh we feel better. 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. Humor loosens up the mental gears and encourages looking at things from a different, out-of-the ordinary perspective.
Besides spackling together our conversations and relieving tension, humor and laughter are coping mechanisms. They provide distance and perspective when situations are otherwise horrible. Laughter is one way to dissipate hurt and pain.
Finally, humor helps us contend with the unthinkable— our own mortality.