How Laughter Benefits Health

Is laughter the best medicine? That's what we want to find out!

I love to laugh. I consider movies that don’t make me laugh at all failures, and I surround myself with people who have a similar sense of humor as I do. Laughter makes me happy! According to many, laughter is the best medicine! But, how true is that really? And how can we harness laughter to improve our own health and well-being?

What Laughing Does To Our Bodies

Firstly, the idea that laughter positively impacts our health is not a new one.

In Sri Lanka, it is believed that laughter purifies the blood and relieves demon-induced discomfort. Perhaps, this discomfort could be thought of as mental illness or chronic pain. Either way, laughing is instrumental in relieving it. Moreover, Norman Cousins argued that the mind-body connection can be positive or negative. Laughter ensures that this connection stays positive.

However, scientists find that our bodies do respond physically to laughter.

When we laugh, our bodies:

  • Increase heart and respiratory rate, which improves blood oxygenation
  • Boosts the immune system to help fight infection
  • Increases mental function
  • Improves interpersonal responsiveness

So what? What happens when we laugh? According to Fred Rosner, when we laugh our entire body responds. Our energy levels improve when our blood has oxygen. Furthermore, our mental health is positively impacted by both our brain function and how we relate to those around us.

In a previous article, I note that relationships are key to a healthy mind and body. Humor and laughter support relationships!

Laughter & Health Promotion

As nice as it is to think that we can laugh diseases away, we have to recognize its limitations. We also have to ask if it even works!

Positive psychology is based on the idea that optimism promotes better health outcomes than pessimism. Alongside laughter, it promotes gratitude and social relationships, both of which have been shown to improve health outcomes

In one study conducted by Adams and McGuire, they tested how aging adults felt after watching a comedic or non-comedic movie. The goal of their study was to determine if humor could alleviate pain symptoms.

And? It did! The seniors that watched the funny movie reported fewer symptoms and less severe symptoms. Many seniors also required less medication!

What can we conclude? Based on the foundations of positive psychology, and this study, we can see that laughter does improve health! In fact, many hospitals, seniors’ living facilities, and other care homes are implementing humor into their treatments. This may take the form of a local comedian, funny movies, clowns, or regular jokes among staff and clients.

Laughter appears to decrease chronic pain symptoms and improve overall mood
Photo by Vidar Nordli Mathisen

But Wait! What Does The Science Say About Laughter?

Laughter plays an important role in our overall contentment. It is a valuable coping mechanism, and plays an important role in building positive relationships. Laughter can also improve doctor-patient rapport, which is critical for high quality care.

However, R.A. Martin expresses some key concerns regarding previous studies.

For example, one claim about laughter improving health regards our body’s reaction to laughing.

Do you a remember a time that you were laughing so hard that you had tears streaming down your face? That you couldn’t breathe? That time where you broke out in laughter when you made eye contact with a friend?

Have you ever laughed so hard milk came out your nose?

This “hearty laughter” is what provokes a physiological response. We breathe harder (or not at all). Our heart rate increases. The tissues in our body are provided with more oxygen.

In many ways, this type of laughter is similar to exercise.

Martin points out that many research studies do not measure the physiological response For example, Adams and McGuire only controlled the type of movie their participants watched. They did not measure laughter at all!

Therefore, while they found a relationship between comedy and chronic pain relief, Martin would argue that they cannot call “laughter” medicine. In psychology, identifying what EXACTLY is being measured is key. In medicine, it becomes even more critical.

Martin also highlights that while many studies DO report the beneficial effects of laughter, they also have several shortcomings:

  • Small sample size
  • Inadequate control measures
  • Did not measure the KIND of laughter that occurred
  • Not easy to replicate

Why do the above conditions matter?

A Brief Lesson On Scientific Studies

In the above list, I highlight shortcomings of some research studies. I want to discuss why these factors can make a study questionable.

Small sample size

When we test a hypothesis, we want to make sure it can be applied to as many people as possible. If we have a small sample size (say 10 people), we cannot assume they represent a whole population. At that point, the participants are individuals. Their reactions to a treatment are individual reactions.

Imagine you had a bag of twelve marbles. Some are blue, some are green, and some are red. You take out a handful, and you may pull out a combination, but that combination isn’t representative of what is in the bag. For example, you pull out four blue, two red, and only one green marble. If the green marble reacts poorly to glow-in-the-dark paint, but red and blue marbles are fine, the glow in the dark paint may be labelled as “safe”. In the study, it was safe for 6/7 marbles. However, green marbles make up 1/3 of the entire population, and it is not safe for them.

On the other hand, if you had a bag of ten thousand marbles, and you pulled out five thousand, you are much more likely to have an accurate representation of the total population!

Inadequate Control Measures

In a scientific experiment, you want to confirm that you are measuring what you think you are measuring.

For example, if someone is trying to lose weight, they may try a variety of strategies at once. They will start working out, they will watch their portions, and they will try this new “herb” that makes them lose weight like magic!

When they begin to lose weight, what do they label as the cause?

In reality, it is probably a combination of exercise and portion control. However, due to the lack of control conditions, the individual may attribute their weight-loss to the miracle herb.

The only way to test if that is the case would be to use the herb without exercising or eating smaller portions. In that way, you are controlling the test environment.

Did Not Measure The KIND Of Laughter

This ties in with the above paragraph.

It all comes down to control.

For example, if an individual took a bunch of herbs and supplements at one time, they cannot pinpoint which one helps them lose weight.

The physiological response provoked by laughter requires a vocal laugh. Perhaps even a belly laugh. When I am on my phone reading memes, I mostly smile or snort. My body does not react the same way.

In this case, am I getting the same benefits from laughter? Or, is the benefit we are seeing from a positive mental state?

Not Easy To Replicate

Replication is another key aspect of the scientific method.

Let’s say you want to try a new technique for flipping a bottle.

If you flip the bottle once using your new technique, it could be chalked up to luck. If you flip it three times (in a row) that’s more impressive! But, it could still be chance.

If you flip the bottle using this technique 100 times, and then your friend flips the bottle 50 times using the same technique, THEN you may be onto something.

This is especially important with medicine. If a medication only works on 1/100 people, those aren’t great odds. On the other hand, if only a handful of people out of thousands have a reaction, that is a pretty safe bet that the medication in question is safe!

Is Laughter The Best Medicine?

Well, the jury is still out!

However, we do know some important facts.

  1. Laughter improves mood. A positive mood and optimistic outlook are associated with better health outcomes.
  2. Belly laughter does provoke a physiological response that increases blood oxygenation.
  3. A good sense of humor improves any relationship, especially those between patients and doctors. Appropriate humor in the medical field is key to improving rapport and bedside manner.

At the end of the day, I feel safe in concluding that laughter does have benefits, whether it can cure cancer or the common cold or not. Feeling safe enough to laugh is critical to development and happiness.

And anyways, who doesn’t like a good joke and chuckle?

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