There’s a lot of truth in the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” Just ask gelotologists—people who study laughter and its psychological and physiological effects on the body. (Yes, there really is a field of study devoted to laughter.) Their research has given us scientific proof that laughter can improve our health.
Many of the beneficial effects of laughter are due to its affect on different regions of the brain. Studies have shown that brain regions normally involved in emotion, cognition, vision, and movement all respond to laughter. For example, the midbrain and hypothalamus — regions where dopamine is released in response to pleasurable stimuli — are activated by laughter. Dopamine is the major component of “reward” mechanisms. It reinforces pleasure-seeking behavior and influences our happiness.
Laughter also stimulates the release of other feel-good substances, including endorphins, which are opiates (sedatives) that can relieve pain, and growth hormone, which plays a role in growth and metabolism. These substances, among others released in response to laughter, have broad physiological effects, such as lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels and boosting immune function.
Many experts believe that laughter also improves alertness, creativity and memory and may even protect your sanity too, which is probably related to its ability to release stress and ease tension.
Taking Your Medicine
Even if we “scientifically” establish that laughter really is good medicine, what now? It seems silly to “prescribe” laughter—something that is usually thought of as spontaneous and fun. But, like exercise—or anything that is good for us—sometimes it just doesn’t happen without a little pre-planning. And there’s no better time than National Humor Month to flex your “funny” muscles.
Here are some practical tips to infuse your life (and health) with more laughter:
- Use laughter to manage stress by keeping a joke book, cartoons (or whatever makes you chuckle) handy. Then before a meeting or stressful situation, pull out your humor stash and enjoy a smile or laugh. Humor makes you feel good and allows you to think more clearly and quickly.
- Being able to laugh at yourself is healthy. Humor keeps you from taking yourself too seriously and makes dealing with others easier. Researchers found that the stress of “perfectionist thinking” is associated with coronary artery disease.
- Create a “funny file” for whatever tickles your individual sense of humor. Whenever you’re feeling down, bored or uninspired, pull out the file for comic relief.
University of Maryland Medical Center