Did you know that laughter can balance body chemistry, and even help to alleviate pain?
In fact, there is a whole raft of positive effects it has on our physiology, from improving our immune responses, to decreasing the risks of heart disease. With no side-effects and a free price tag, it's not hard to see why researchers are keen to nail down the mechanics behind this most complex of human traits.
Everyone can laugh. It brings communities together and strengthens familial and friendship ties regardless of their religion, culture, or background.
We can laugh spontaneously, sarcastically, nervously, in response to stress or for no apparent reason at all. Laughter may also be forced, faked or deliberately prolonged. Babies who are deaf and blind can laugh, having never seen or heard laughter before. Our closest mammalian cousins, the great apes, share the same primal need to laugh, suggesting that it must serve some evolutionary purpose or we would have adapted over millennia to remove it as a function.
Which part of the brain does it use?
The nuances of laughter require the activation of more than one region of the brain. Elise Wattendorf et al, studied MRI scans of volunteers split into three groups. The first were tickled on the soles of the foot and granted permission to laugh. The second group were tickled but instructed to suppress their laughter, and the third asked to force laughter without tickling.
Not surprisingly, the genuine laughter of the first group activated specific regions of the brain with more consistency than the others. Each of the identified regions are known to control specific functions;
1) Lateral hypothalamus – this is known for promoting arousal and feeding behaviours, reducing pain reception, and controlling blood pressure and digestive functions.
2) Parietal operculum – this has an impact on the processing of stimuli from the senses, such as temperature and touch.
3) Amygdala – is involved with memory processing, emotional reactions and decision-making.
4) Right cerebellum – known to activate in relation to language, visual cues, imagination and empathy.
5) Ventromedial prefrontal cortex – releases endorphins known to decrease pain and induce a feeling of euphoria.
So how does that help us?
James Rotton, PhD, of Florida International University, discovered that orthopaedic surgery patients requested fewer pain meds after watching comedies than when watching dramas. Dr Kim Lebowitz et al, conducted a similar study on patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Her conclusions were positive in that her patients reported an enhanced quality-of-life, but the laughter had a tendency to make their lung conditions worse. I would have thought that an obvious outcome, making her choice of patients inadvisable - but then I'm not an expert.
Another study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, reported the effects of watching comedy on the circulatory system. While heart rates and blood pressure rose in most cases during the laughter periods, the flexibility of important arteries improved significantly, only returning to a baseline measure 24 hours later. The conclusion drawn was that “mirthful laughter elicited by comic movies induces beneficial impact on vascular function.”
A Japanese study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology, analysed almost 21,000 over 65-year-olds for links between laughter and incidence of strokes or heart disease. After adjusting for factors such as depression, high blood pressure and blood fats, and body mass index, they concluded that those people who never or rarely laughed had a 21% higher risk of heart disease than those receiving a daily dose of chuckles. People who rarely laughed, also presented a stroke risk of more than 60% higher than regular gigglers.
Can forced laughter help?
Laughter is contagious. Neuroscientist Sophie Scott, University College London, reports that “It seems absolutely true that laugh, and the whole world laughs with you. We've known for some time that when we are talking to someone, we often mirror their behaviour, copying the words they use and mimicking their gestures. Now we've shown that the same appears to apply to laughter too – at least at the level of the brain.”
It therefore follows that hearing others laugh, or even forcing us ourselves to laugh might trigger the mechanisms in the brain to initiate genuine laughter and all the associated benefits involved. Laughter Yoga is a sweeping craze which seems to garner plenty of media coverage. It involves breathing exercises followed by forced periods of laughter. In a pilot study, published in 2012, six participants were evaluated following 10 sessions of laughter Yoga across four weeks. Their heart rate variability, blood pressure and moods were recorded prior to and after each session. Anecdotal reports of anxiety and depression were also recorded before the study began and after the four weeks.
Participants showed an increased heart rate variability, lowered anxiety levels and improved moods. It's hard to credit these positives to laughter alone, considering none of the measurements included records of social activities prior to joining the group. The same results could just as easily have been a direct response to socialising with like-minded people following a prolonged stretch of isolation.
And therein lies the rub. Laughter is exceedingly difficult to generate spontaneously when you live on your own. Social isolation invariably leads to greater levels of depression and potential anxieties than those who regularly mingle. With so many potential physiological benefits obtained from laughter it makes sense that we should all schedule giggles into our daily routines.
- laughter relaxes our bodies, relieving physical tensions and stress for up to 45 min afterwards. By decreasing stress hormone release, our immune systems can function at an optimal rate. Our limbic system produces endorphins, tickling the happy reward centres in our brains, thus making us feel well, and dampening the effects of pain.
- laughter increases blood flow by improving the flexibility of our arteries and veins. This in turn strengthens the cardiovascular system, lowering risks of heart disease and attacks.
- laughter diffuses anger and negative emotions more efficiently than any drug known to man. The added benefits are that it has absolutely no side effects and is completely free.
- sharing laughter improves mood. Adding joy to our lives relieves stress and anxiety, promotes optimism and fortifies resilience.
- laughter draws people towards you. It's a social bond that can be shared by any group in society. Having a good sense of humour is often mentioned in dating profiles as being the most important factor in attracting a mate. The ability to see the funny side of life, can be a highly desirable quality in a life partner.
- laughter can help bind colleagues together as a cohesive team, or help loners to find their social tribes.
How to put more humour into your life.
Make a point of smiling as much as possible. Challenge yourself to see if you can create a chain reaction in a queue of people. Smile at the cashier when you go to pay for something. It often initiates conversation and it primes the brain to activate those laughter centres. One contagious smile to a co-worker or even a stranger can spread across the world, given time.
Count your blessings.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the wonderful things in life when you are weighed down with anxieties. As daft as it may seem, writing an actual list of things in your life that make you happy, can assist in lightening your mood. It could be as simple as having your favourite beverage stocked at work, or that you hit only green traffic lights on your last journey, but it’s often the little things that can add up to a more positive outlook, and that makes laughter easier to trigger.
Move towards laughter
Sometimes jokes are private, between friends or couples, but often it’s not. Most people are more than happy to share in the humour and spread the joy about. I often wait to meet friends in greetings card shops. I read through the funny cards, and find myself falling about in laughter, or cringing aloud at some of the awful puns. Almost every time I have done this, I have drawn other shoppers closer to find out why I am chuckling. In most cases, it leads to conversations about dreadful jokes in general.
Make time for playful people
You know the ones I mean. The people who resolutely refuse to act their age. The ones who cry with laughter over the silliest things, who make your sides ache after spending just a few minutes in their presence. What is it that makes them such fun? They ignore their inhibition to laugh.
Spend time with pets or children
Why are there so many cat videos online? Because they make us howl with laughter. That feel good buzz of dopamine trickling through our senses. Neither pets nor children worry what other people will think about them. They gambol about having glorious fun, giving us all an excellent boost of brain chemicals.
Watch comedies with friends
It is possible to laugh alone, but the effect is magnified in a crowd. This is precisely why sitcoms often have recorded or ‘canned’ laughter added to the sound tracks, since it provokes giggling with the viewers. It is also why comedians often have warm up acts and do better with a large audience than a small group. Having said that, I asked Siri on my iPhone to tell me a joke, and I giggled so hard that I had to telephone my dad to propagate the amusement. Try it for yourself if you can, he/she has quite the repertoire.
However you choose to get your chuckles, it is clear that maintaining a healthy mind and body requires laughter as much as exercise and eating your five portions of fruit and veg. Until such a time when science fully confirms just how important it is to our well-being, perhaps providing comedy on the NHS and within medical plans, there is no harm in self-medicating in the meantime.
Here’s just one joke to get you started… What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything. Groan... sorry :)