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It feels good to laugh once in a while. Everyone knows that. But laughter as a health-promoting exercise is not as widely practiced, despite of the fact that scientists have long known about the healing effects of good humor.
In his best-selling book, “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” (W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), Norman Cousins describes his own recovery from a life-threatening disease, which he credits in large parts to laughter.
What at first sounds like a good story – man cures himself by watching funny movies – is in fact an account of what scientists call the “natural recuperative mechanism” of the body, a.k.a. “homeostatic response,” meaning that the body is able to heal itself and return to a state of normalcy from injuries suffered at a time of illness.
Of course, proper medical care can support and accelerate the natural healing process, but recovery almost always also depends on the body’s own defense mechanisms. Among these defenses is the patient’s state of mind. In Cousins’ case, it seemed that a positive attitude and specifically a great sense of humor helped him muster the inner resources needed to overcome his ailments.
This, obviously, is a dramatic and rare example of the potential benefits of positive thinking. More common are reports that laughter has helped ease pain and suffering, not just the mental but also the physical kind. A recent study conducted at the University of Oxford, England, found that belly laughs caused the body to release endorphins, which act like opiates by inducing emotional calm and enhancing an overall sense of well-being.
During my internship as a clinical dietitian, I observed these effects more than once. I distinctly remember one occasion around Mardi Gras when a nurse dressed up in a clown costume tried her best to cheer up patients, some of whom were desperately ill. That night, the nursing staff reported having dispensed significantly less pain medication than on other days. The laughter in response to the nurse’s performance worked just like a painkiller.
Even if you are not seriously ill but just feel a bit run down, laughing can be good medicine for you, says R. Morgan Griffin who writes for WebMD. We change physiologically when we laugh, she says, our blood pressure goes up and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen through our system – “like a mild workout.” Laughing may actually offer similar benefits as physical exercise.
Other possible side effects of laughter include stress relief, sounder sleep, better blood sugar regulation and strengthening of the immune system.
As plausible as some of these claims about the health benefits of laughter may sound, it is hard to prove any of them scientifically, warns Dr. Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” It’s difficult to determine cause and effect when it comes to understanding what laughter actually does, he says in an interview with WebMD. “But we all know that laughing, being with friends and family, and being happy can make us feel better and give us a boost – even though studies may not show why,” he concludes.
P.S. If you liked this article, you may also enjoy watching the movie “Patch Adams” (1998) with Robin Williams, which is based on the true story of a medical student trying to improve hospital patients’ quality of life through humor.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.