Natures medicine the beneficial health effects of laughter

23 Mar 2015

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The cheapest medicine one can find today is laughter. Studies have proved that laughter, humor and optimism positively affect physical health. Forms of therapeutic humor are popular among cancer patients and patients with diseases that cause a high level of pain. Norman Cousins, who is a founder of using laughter as a form of therapy, delved into the medical use of humor. After being diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory arthritis disease, Cousins prescribed himself vitamin C and a dose of laughter every night. He claimed that ten minutes of laughing could assure him two hours of painless sleep (Puder). Cousins ended up living sixteen years beyond the diagnosis of his disease and twenty-six years past being first diagnosed with heart disease. Cousins outlived all of the doctors' predictions by increasing the humor in his life and determination to live (Read-Brown). There is not a better living example than Norman Cousins of how laughter can affect the mentality and physical wellness of an ill patient. It is not one hundred percent certain that it was laughter that caused Cousins to live decades beyond his diagnoses of chronic illnesses, but additional humor was the only change in his medical routine. Recent studies showing the effects of laughter prolong the effects of illnesses, which spurred scientific studies in all departments of laughter including sense of humor, psychological effects, and physiological effects.

Laughter is reported to reduce stress, improve tolerance to pain, as well as alter blood pressure, heart rate, muscle activity and stomach acidity. Multiple studies have been done to gain its credibility for improving physical health. Laughter increases the release of endorphins which are chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and protectors against depression, which proves why laughing makes one feel better (Puder). All these effects serve to be concrete reasons why humor and laughing improves physical health. Stress, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle activity directly relate to heart disease and mobility which are two common problems in older adults. In the article, "The Healthful Effects of Laughter," studies by the Department of Clinical Immunology at Loma Linda University School of Medicine show that, "Laughter decreases serum cortisol levels, increases T lymphocytes, and increases the number of natural killer cells. Translated into layman terms, these results suggest that laughter stimulates the immune system" (Puder). Scientific studies may not have definite proof that humor can cure disease, but cases have shown that laughter boosts the immune system by increasing the chemicals in the body that fuel positivity.

The idea of humor does not affect one's well-being; it is the physical action of laughing that can improve physical health. Laughter is summarized well in Christine Puder's article, "The Healthful Effects of Laughter," claiming "Dr. William Fry, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Stanford University, has studied the effects of laughter for 30 years. Fry compares laughter to 'inner jogging.' And claims laughing 100 times a day is the equivalent of 10 minutes of rowing. According to Fry, laughter increases the heart rate, improves blood circulation, and works muscles all over the body" (Puder). Fry states that not only does laughter have a healing power; it is also a source of exercise. The physical act of laughing is necessary to receive the physical benefits, though laughter is not required to obtain an improved positive emotional state. The core of health benefits that come from humor are big belly laughs or in other words, strong laughing that engages one's stomach muscles. On the mental side, humor without laughter can lift people's moods and cause them to increase pain tolerance, enhance immunity, and undo the cardiovascular consequences of negative emotions. Two other ways humor can benefit a healthy living style is by easing the amount of stress on one's health and increasing one's level of social support. In other words, individuals who laugh more may be able to cope with stress better than others as well as be able to reduce tension in relationships by being more socially competent (Martin). People who do not allow themselves to laugh are much tenser and have a hard time letting things go. In the same sense, people who do not laugh may find themselves in awkward situations when it comes to first-time interactions and social relationships because jokes and laughter are common.

The Sense of Humor Scale is a way that scientists have been able to measure humor's effects on health. Sense of Humor Scales are generally a series of questions asked to different types of groups including healthy groups and groups with medical conditions. This scale, the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale, is a series of thirty-six questions that test four dimensions of one's sense of humor: humor production, humor appreciation, the use of humor as a coping mechanism, and attitudes toward humor (Boyle 52). Gregory J. Boyle from the Department of Psychology at Bon University in Australia and Jeanne M. Joss-Reid from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Queensland in Australia, conducted an experiment testing (1) if humor would be significantly associated with health and (2) if individuals with a greater sense of humor would report significantly higher levels of good health as compared with those with less humor (Boyle 62). Their findings propose that there is no substantial support for either hypothesis suggesting that a better sense of humor does not directly relate to having better health. What Boyle and Joss-Reid did find was that being healthy versus being ill changes the way humor is viewed and used (Boyle 62). An example of how humor is viewed and used is that those with medical conditions turn to humor as a coping strategy. Medical patients are more apt to be depressed and stressed about their life. Laughter is seen as an optimistic future and is used in a way for patients to feel healthy and normal again. Healthy individuals often see laughter as happiness provoked from social situations or the media, and do not treat it, nor respond to it any differently than breathing.

Older adults are the most beneficial from both the psychological and physiological effects of humor. Ronald A. Berk from The John Hopkins University School of Nursing, researched the psychophysiological benefits and risks of humor in older adults, and he found that the use of therapeutic humor with older adults and geriatric education has gained more attention (Berk 324). The reason why older adults attract more attention for this type of therapy is because they face more chronic medical illnesses than any other age range. Humor branches off into mirth and laughter, being the emotional and the physical response. The emotional response produces psychological effects such as increasing the immune system. The physical response produces physiological effects, such as lowering blood pressure. These effects are most useful to older adults, especially ones facing chronic illnesses (Berk 324).

Psychological and physiological effects have both benefits and risks on the mind and body. The emotional response is what channels psychological effects. The use of humor changes the way a generally depressing subject is viewed. Without humor, negative feelings normally arise from problematic situations. Humor allows a person to separate themself from a problem and experience a positive more joyful emotion instead of holding pessimistic views. Possible problems include stress, illness, surgery, chronic pain and death. Many emotions that typically coincide with these issues are fear, shame, anxiety, depression, anger, and low self-esteem. The use of humor changes the negative feelings and eliminates the possible impact they can have on a person (Berk 326). The emotions that stem from medical problems are strong and aggressive, and they can easily affect the mentality of a patient's current situation as well as their outlook for the future. There are eight psychological benefits of humor and they are: reducing anxiety, reducing tension, reducing stress, reducing depression, reducing loneliness, improving self-esteem, restoring hope and energy, and providing a sense of empowerment and control (Berk 327). A study performed by Elsa Marziali, Lynn McDonald, and Peter Donahue from the Kunin Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit in Toronto, Canada, on the role of coping humor in older adults found that social support, self-efficacy and coping humor are the three factors that may provide the ingredients for balancing self attributes with social connectedness (Marziali 713). Self-efficacy is a strong factor because if people have optimistic personalities, then they will have better effects on their health outcome. Marziali, McDonald and Donahue state in their study that, "Implied in the construct of self-efficacy is a sense of believing that one is in control and therefore can influence life events, including physical health status" (Marziali 717). This idea is similar to the power of positive thinking and manifestation. There are people who trust that all it takes for a certain outcome to occur is to simply believe that it will.

The physiological effects come from the physical act of laughter. There are many different stages of amusement some very discrete, others are impossible to go unnoticed. The acts of laughter range from smirking, smiling and grinning to shrieking, howling, and dying of laughter. Laughter is so physically engaging that it has been believed to be as equivalent as aerobic exercise. It involves one's central nervous, muscular, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems. The physical benefits of laughter include: improving mental functioning, exercises and relaxes muscles, improves respiration, stimulates circulation, decreases stress hormones, increases immune system's defenses and increases the production of endorphins (Berk 330). Each of these benefits are helpful with older adults. Many elderly people have trouble with memory, mobility, high blood pressure and illnesses in their old age, which can all be improved through laughing. One of the most beneficial aspects is the increased immune system. A study shows that, with laughter, natural killer cell activity is moderated and increases the amount of activated T lymphocytes. The reason this is so beneficial is because these cells help to prevent many infectious diseases as well as cancer (Berk 331). Laughter's ability to improve the immune system is the most useful effect because one can prevent disease from occurring. The ability to prevent cancer is not common, though laughter is quite natural.

Residents of assisted living facilities benefit greatly from humor and humor coping. The use of humor coping helps the elderly adjust to their new living situation as well as distract themselves from any stressful issues or health conditions (Celso 438). Humor is useful with the elderly specifically because older adults may have a stronger sense of not having anything to live for. Positive interaction and stimulation both can account towards a willingness to live because life is more enjoyable. A study done by B.G. Celso, D.J. Ebener and E.J. Burkhead from Florida State University found that, "The promotion of humor appeared to simultaneously result in the re-engagement of retirement residents with others in the facility…reduce the possibility of depressed elderly from committing suicide…[and] as a means to assist older adults adapt to nursing home placement" (Celso 439). In other words, the use of humor encourages interaction, happiness and comfort among older adults in assisted living facilities. Humor use for the elderly is much different than for other ages. Laughter releases stress among all ages though, at younger ages people do not consciously laugh as a therapeutic session. Humor and laughing is often a social emotion. The study questioned 211 people who averaged an age of eighty-one, and found that there was a strong correlation between health status and life satisfaction and a moderately strong correlation between using humor coping and health status (Celso 439).

Seventy-five percent of elderly adults are institutionalized in assisted living facilities. Many adults face hardships and negative attitudes when being titled as dependent and in need of help (Westburg 16). Nancy Westburg, an associate professor for Counseling Services at Rider University completed a study on hope, laughter and humor in residents of assisted living facilities. After testing the level of hope among twenty-four residents, seventy-five percent had high-hope levels while the other twenty-five percent had low-hope levels (Westburg 21). Residents' responses to questions were mainly positive. They included that laughing made them feel relaxed, happy, healthy and energized. Residents also agreed that laughing and playing more would cause feelings of happiness, healthiness and youth. Residents with high-hope levels incurred laughing more often, laughing at more situations and overall having an easier time laughing (Westburg 24). Westburg states in her study, "The ability to find humor in everyday situations as a source of humor seems to be an inner strength that helps these people to feel positive when faced with the stressors of institutional living" (Westburg 24). In other words, elderly adults with higher hope levels have a determination for life which makes them more willing to laugh. When one is more hopeful and willing, it is easier to find humor in everyday situations. The majority of the residents agreed that they would feel better if they laughed and played more (Westburg 24). It is easy for adults to recognize the positive benefits that they receive from laughing. Laughter is a sense of feeling better without specifically knowing why, and that is why it is so attractive to people.

Discovering the truth behind using laughter as a medicine is beneficial to all, but especially to older adults. There may not be a scientific law that states that laughter can cure all illnesses, but it only takes simple science methods to see that humor makes one feel happy, healthy and can lift one's spirits. A sense of humor and bursts of laughter chemically change what is going on in one's brain and mask sense of pain and sorrow momentarily. Laughter is proven to affect one's mind, body and soul. Older adults are in the highest demand for physical and mental assistance and to fix a simple problem with a chuckle or guffaw is beyond simplified. Laughter brings a new simple and holistic way of improving one's life. Norman Cousins states, "Inevitably, an individual is measured by his or her largest concerns" (Read-Brown). In other words, a person is weighted down by the burdens they hold on to and the mindset that they build. Optimism and carefree living is the way to stay laughing.

Source Citation

Boyle, Gregory J., and Jeanne M. Joss-Reid. "Relationship of Humour to Health: A Psychometric Investigation." British Journal of Health Psychology 9.1 (2004): 51-66. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Apr. 2011.

Celso, B.G., D.J. Ebener, and E.J. Burkhead. "Humor Coping, Health Status, and Life Satisfaction among Older Adults Residing in Assisted Living Facilities." Aging & Mental Health 7.6 (2003): 438. Academic Search Premier. Web. 09 Apr. 2011.

Martin, R.A. "Is Laughter the Best Medicine? Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health." Current Directions in Psychological Science 11.6 (2002): 216-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 09 Apr. 2011.

Marziali, Elsa, Lynn McDonald, and Peter Donahue. "The Role of Coping Humor in the Physical and Mental Health of Older Adults." Aging & Mental Health 12.6 (2008): 713-18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

Puder, Christine. "The Healthful Effects of Laughter." Journal of Child and Oneth Care 12.3 (1998): 45-53. The International Child and Oneth Care Network. CYC-Online, Aug. 2003. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. <>.

Read-Brown, Ken. "Norman Cousins: Editor and Writer." Harvard Square Library | Unitarian Biographies | Cambridge | History | Philosophy. Web. 06 Apr. 2011. <>.

Westburg, Nancy. "Hope, Laughter, and Humor in Residents and Staff at an Assisted Living Facility." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 25.1 (2003): 16-17. Academic Search Premier. Web. 06 Apr. 2011.

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