Is laughter the best medicine?
Most of us would agree that laughter does something to us. Whether it involves a friend giving you a certain knowing look or recalling a funny memory from our past, laughter connects us in a way that’s uniquely human.
I recently posted an article about the holiday blues on social media, knowing that many people struggle with feelings of melancholy over the holidays and wanting to remind people that they aren’t alone in these feelings
My best friend called me after seeing the post to inquire whether I was feeling blue. We talked about the challenges holidays can bring, including pressure related to societal as well as self-imposed expectations at the holidays. We both were quiet for a moment considering our own emotional challenges when out of the blue she reminded me of a funny memory we shared. I hadn’t thought about this for years and, just like that, tears of laughter were streaming down my cheeks. A second later, I heard peals of laughter coming from the other end of the line. I was reminded how important laughter is in my life as my mood shifted and I felt a renewed confidence that I could manage my holiday stress.
Robert Provine, who studied laughter at the University of Maryland, describes laughter as uniquely human. It connects us in ways that help us to feel less alone in the world and serves to stimulate social relationships. Research shows that the health benefits of feeling connected to a larger group is one protective factor in managing emotional and physical disorders.
Research by Lee Berk from Loma Linda University found that when people laugh there’s a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in endorphins, including the feeling good hormone dopamine. Similarly, the brain releases dopamine when we eat food that we crave, after hard exercise or other kinds of healthy activities, like walking in nature or listening to music, to name a few.
According to Berk, there are other benefits, too. Laughter has been linked to healthy benefits ranging from lower levels of inflammation to improved blood flow in the body. He found that laughter enhanced mood and immune activity, lowered bad cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, and raised good cholesterol.
We know anecdotally that laughter has a positive effect on our mood, as we feel happier when we laugh. As the relationship between the mind/body connection becomes more clearly understood, we’re learning that laughter has far greater benefits on our overall emotional and physical well-being. Learning to incorporate 30 minutes of laughter into our daily routines, along with other important self-care strategies such as maintaining a consistent and quality sleep routine, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, and exercising regularly is an important and effective factor to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Maureen Maher-Bridge is a social worker in the Department of Psychiatry at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.