October 2009

When It Comes To Your Health, Humor Is No Laughing Matter

Author: Bryant Welch, J.D., Ph.D.

Humor is caused by the delightfully unexpected. From slapstick to irony the core experience of humor is that our preconceived expectations are jostled in a way that gives us a temporary reprieve from the controlled and predictable world in which we live. It is a brief relaxation of the tedious constraints imposed by logic, routine, and the ordinary.

We think of laughter as fun, and it is. It is also, however, much, much more. Laughter is a powerful medicine that can have significant implications for our overall physical and emotional health, protecting us from disease and increasing our capacity for a long and rewarding life.

Prior to the advent of new scientific techniques for measuring the effect of laughter on our bodies, the health effects of laughter were given the status of bromides that were highly subjective and sounded like “old wives tales” or New Age equivalents in their claims that laughter (like everything else under the sun) was a magical elixir.

Sure laughter is a good thing. It makes us feel better, and it gives us a sense of camaraderie with those who share the experience with us. But until recently, for the most part, laughter was not taken more seriously by modern medicine than any other recreational diversion. It took our mind off our problems, and like anything else that does that, it is a welcome respite from which we benefit but in an immeasurable and presumably minimal way.

Now, however, the proponents of “laughter as the best medicine” are having the last laugh. New measuring devices are able to track the neuro-chemical and biological changes in the body that accompany laughter, and they are very impressive, indeed.

For example, the immune system is a central factor in our longevity and the quality of our life. We now know that laughter actually boosts the immune system and improves our resistance to disease. It decreases the production of stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, far surpassing even cancer. Laughter also protects our hearts. It improves cardiovascular functioning increasing blood flow and strengthening our blood vessels. This reduces our risk of heart attack and other heart-related problems.

We can now measure the effect of laughter on the production of endorphins—the so-called “feel good” chemicals of the brain. Endorphins are the cause of our sense of well-being that we get immediately following exercise and one of the many benefits we get from exercise. The reduction in stress is apparent to anyone who has ever had an exercise “high.”

And these are just the physiological effects of humor. Human beings are not only biological creatures. We are also profoundly social. We need social connectedness. If we do not have it, as studies show, we are more likely to suffer depression, succumb to a physical illness, and even die a premature death. If you consider who you have laughed with the hardest over the course of your lifetime, they are probably the people to whom you have felt closest. In many cases, the shared sense of humor was a big factor contributing to the intimacy and closeness in the first place.

As a psychotherapist, I see another invaluable effect of humor. It protects us from the poisonous effects of negative emotions. Oftentimes, I find that patients I work with in psychotherapy who have had the most terrible life experiences have been able somehow to develop a very deep sense of the absurd that they are able to turn into a rich sense of humor that serves as a prophylactic against a chronic bitterness that one might expect to see based on their life experiences. Kurt Vonnegut’s “gallows humor” is an illustration of this that is quite public and widely recognized. The forlorn and tragic histories of clowns also provide case vignettes of people using humor to escape from emotional pain and bitterness.

If laughter is good for our physical, emotional, and social health, how do we find it? Unfortunately, we cannot buy it at the local drug store. What, exactly, are we suppose to laugh at? Do we prescribe two hours of sitcoms a night for ourselves? Do we go to comedy clubs? Should we have joke parties with our friends? If those things work for you, by all means go ahead. But for most of you who are like me, these things are not always available. Laughter cannot be forced.

Fortunately, we are all endowed with a bottomless pit of potential humor that is omnipresent. Ourselves. If we plumb the depths of our minds sufficiently, most of us will find that our very nature is a cornucopia of things to be laughed at: our foolishness, our hypocrisies, our vanities, and the list goes on and on for every one of us.

If we cannot find that cornucopia, we probably need to look a little harder. The search is well worth it. We not only improve our own health and well being, we also will probably be building a more tolerant world in which we are every bit as aware of our own absurdity as we are that of our neighbors.

Bryant L. Welch, J.D., Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices on Hilton
Head Island. He is the author of the recent book State of Confusion: Political
Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martins Press, 2008.)
He can be reached at welchfirm@aol.com.

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