We all know the phrase, laughter is the best medicine. But is this really true? Scientifically spoken? And can laughing help us heal faster from surgery?
The question is: is laughing just a fun pastime or are there actual scientific reasons we laugh? And if there is a biological or scientific reason for human laughter we wondered what evolutionary benefit such laughter provides.
Hippocrates was known for his recommendation to add humor to medicine. Ancient tribes used it to their advantage and also the Old Testament mentions the medicinal benefits of laughing;
A merry heart doeth good, like medicine.
If you look at what’s been written and researched in modern day it turns out the answer that in fact laughter, in any amount, is actually medicinal.
In the field of psychology it’s long been known that laughter;
- helps to relieve stress,
- acts as a powerful analgesic (painkiller),
- is able to bring enemies closer together
- and can enhance the healing process.
Joy and laughter do not only reduce pain but can actually help you heal faster.
Indeed some might infer from psychological research that the very benefits to awareness that laughter brings (such as enhanced focus, more attentiveness to detail, and increased alertness) are all the needed evolutionary answers.
And while this argument is a nice picture of what natural selection may have picked up on, one question remains—how can laughter actually heal?
As it stands there are at least three ways to break down the benefits of laughing:
- Benefit to physical health
- Benefit to mental health
- Benefit to belonging (to a society, for example)
In each of the three ways we benefit from laughing we see indicators that, in fact, laughing has the power to play a pivotal role in the healing process.
Doctors and Gelotologists, scientists who study humor and laughter, have discovered that laughing;
- boosts immune response, laughing increases the creation ofsubstances called interferon, globulins, and T-cells
- lowers stress-inducing hormones, laughing lowers cortisol levels that which makes us feel more relaxed
- relieves pain, pain killing hormones called endorphins are produced by our bodies in response to laughter
- relaxes the musculatory system,
- and may even prevent heart disease.
Voltaire already knew this when he said;
“The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease.”
One of the most emblematic examples of how laughter can be an effective painkiller and a powerful healing agent is Norman Cousins, author of the best selling book Anatomy of an Illness who literally laughed himself to health. After being diagnosed an incurable spinal ailment and given very little chance on survival he started watching comedies and read jokes and comic books. After a month at his check up at the hospital his medical examiners found no trace of his disease.
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
As laughing is widely known to improve mood (that’s just obvious, right?) and add joy to life, it’s also shown in psychological findings that laughing will ease anxiety and fear.
Which is why adding humor to your pre- and post-surgery regimen can be so valuable. After all a hospital setting is often accompanied with feeling anxious and fearful.
Also feeling lonely and sometimes even homesickness can be beaten with humor. This has to do with the fact that humor binds us so we tend to feel less lonely. From an evolutionary view;
We laugh because laughing brings us together into groups, we are more keen in groups (as we tend to want to stand out within a group setting boasting our own benefit to the group), and, therefore, we are less likely to be targeted and ultimately destroyed by rival groups.
These facts alone should provide enough of a direct causal link to why laughter promotes health.
That said, in order to understand what exactly laughing does to our biology and chemistry, it will be necessary to explore a more micro view of how laughter interacts with the body.
So How Does Laughter Help Us Heal (From Surgery)?
Probably the easiest place to start in order to understand this will be to explore how laughing can actually prevent pathology in the first place.
As noted above, laughter boosts the immune system. So, how does it do that?
According to research conducted in 2006 by Lee Bark and Stanley A. Tan (from Loma Linda University in California), two specific hormones assist in boosting immunity.
- First, beta-endorphins, used in the body to numb pain, have the ability to counteract depression.
- Second, Human Growth Hormone (known more commonly by the acronym HGH), used in the body to stimulate growth and reproduction of key elements of the body (such as cells), plays a huge role in helping immunity.
According to Bark and Tan (2006), these hormones increase by approximately 30 and 90 percent (respectively) during laughter. Indeed, even thinking about something funny (and not actually laughing) shows increase production of these powerful healing hormones.
In certain martial arts and self defense systems you are taught to smile during an attack since since it reduces pain
Studies show that HGH’s help wounds heal faster. One study in which recombinant human growth hormones were administered the total length of the hospital stay was reduced by more than 25%. (2)
And, laughing reduces stress
The ability for laughter to decrease stress is also related to how laughter affects hormones. Simply put, there are several stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine that, when released, are designed to aid the body in a variety of ways.
In fact, cortisol for example, is key in;
- regulating metabolism,
- regulating blood pressure,
- boosting immunity,
- and counteracting inflammation.
But, when hormones such as cortisol are present at too high of levels in the body, many of the beneficial traits of these hormones become pathological. Sticking with cortisol we see that too much of the hormone impairs cognition, impedes the thyroid, decreases bone density, leads to hyperglycemia, causes high blood pressure, and lowers immunity.
Indeed, the very job of cortisol is turned on its head with too much stress. Fortunately, there is a way we can counteract that stress just by laughing more.
Really, one has to ask,
“What diet regime could be better than an order from the doctor to get out to more comedy clubs, watch more comedic movies, and surround yourself with funny characters?”
The fact that laughing is so great at healing and preventing disease should make you run to your next comedy show. Or maybe order some comedy DVDs. For inspiraton see Amazon’s Top Comedy Picks
You could also create a ‘ humor file’. A notebook with funny situations, quotes, memories, cartoons, jokes and so on. This file may help you lift up your mood.
Laughing not only has a beneficial effect on the immune system but humor also helps you cope with the tough moments that often accompany surgery recovery.
So, we have long known that laughing makes you feel better and bring you more in tune with the people around you; but, scientists are now learning a lot about how laughing actually heals by changing and improving the chemical and physiological functioning of the body.
While more research certainly needs to be done to understand all there is to know about laughter, it’s impossible to argue that laughing plays no role in healing.
Hospitals Humor Programs
If you’re interested in seeing one of the most lively proponents of the relationship between laughter and healing, one of the best characters to listen to is a doctor by the named of Patch Adams. If this name is familiar to you, it may be because you’ve seen the movie based on Dr. Adams and starring the comedian Robin Williams.
Dr. Adams has been at the forefront of studying how laughter improves health (and indeed heals) since the 1960s. Since the time of Dr. Adams’ creation of the Gesundheit Institute, more physicians and figures from the scientific and medicine community have been stepping forward to defend Dr. Adams’ work and determine exactly what the mind-body connection is between laughter.
In addition to being a world renowned doctor, Dr. Adams is also a clown—literally. He has often worn clown costumes throughout his career, works as a street clown from time to time, and even travels the world to orphanages and hospitals once a year dressed as a clown–all for the purpose of bringing joy into the hearts of the sick and healthy (children and adults alike).
For over 30 years Dr. Adams’ work has been geared towards showing the benefit laughter can bring to one’s recovery and to sooth them in the greatest times of need. And his findings have been spectacular. Not dealing with any insignificant sample size, Dr. Adams and his team spent 12 years serving over 15,000 patients in a healing manner accordant with Dr. Adams’ view that laughter, joy, and creativity play an integral role in healing.
Indeed Dr. Adams’ whole career has been devoted to finding what makes people laugh—he really stands by his philosophy. It is Dr. Adam’s goal to show the medical community that being happy is the most important factor to maintaining a healthy life. He has even been known to say that the most revolutionary act a person can take in life is to be happy.
One of the greatest things about the medicine of laughter is that you cannot overdose. Indeed, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between the amount of laughter one involves themselves in and the level of health of that individual.
If the psychological affect of laughter don’t make a strong enough case for laughter, there is also very solid evidence that laughter helps to burn fat and keep us fit. Considering the fact that heart disease and obesity are reaching epic proportion in the Western world, we should not just bypass this benefit of laughter. In fact, there are countless dietary benefits to laughter.
One of the worst pathology’s facing the western world is heart disease. It turns out that laughter actually has the ability to decrease bad cholesterol and even benefit victims of stroke.
The connection between laughter and a healthy heart goes back to how laughter suppresses hormones the constrict blood flow. By allowing blood vessels to dilate, laughter increases blood flow throughout the body. This increased blow flow, regulated by the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels), means that the endothelium is less susceptible to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)–hardening of the arteries are a major reason for heart disease and death by heart attack or stroke. Additionally, when laughter stops blood pressure actually decreases and, with the relaxed endothelium, affords a more oxygenated, higher quality nutrient carrying blood.
Above we have uncovered some very specific ways that laughter can heal and help someone recover from any type of malady; but, the point cannot be emphasized enough that more research is necessary to understand the link between laughter and healing. This research is so new in the medicine community that doctors and specialists are not just thinking of laughter as a new tool in their arsenal of medical care but a paradigm shift in how the mind and body interact.
Fact remains that together with love, hope, faith, and a strong will to live, laughter is a powerful healer. Like all scientific pursuits medicine is ever changing, updating, and revising. As more research comes out unveiling the power of the mind to affect and promote health the future of research into laughter for healing’s sake is sure to be exciting.
Perhaps one of the latest and most exciting developments in the world of healing through laughter is the development of laughter based yoga, or, more simply, “Laughter Yoga.” There are groups forming all over the world that are dedicated to the technique of combining the benefits of both yoga and laughter for the purpose of making people happier, healthier, and more productive citizens.
Laughter Yoga has shown positive results in everything from business to fitness and has even been shown to assist prisoners, mentally ill, pregnant women, and those suffering from substance abuse.
Really, as more research is uncovered and more experts come forward touting the role that laughter plays in helping to live a happy and healthy life and hasten healing, it should be no surprise to expect more laughter-oriented groups to pop up. There may even be a group near you already.
It is more and more widely accepted that humor can be a powerful tool in not only healing but in learning, coping with difficult situations and much more. Want to read more about the powers of laughter? Maybe this book, titled The Healing Power of Humor, is something for you.
1. Humor’s Healing Potential. a PubMed study.
2. Recombinant human growth hormone accelerates wound healing in children with large cutaneous burns. Source: NCBI.gov