In the 1960s, Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a crippling and potentially fatal collagen disease. In response, Cousins undertook a regime that included plenty of vitamin C and positive emotions – including daily belly laughs that resulted from watching TV shows like The Three Stooges.
To the surprise of many doctors, he made a full recovery, published a book about the experience (the best-selling Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, 1979) and in the process provided a wellspring of support for the idea that laughter makes for great medicine.
Now, several decades later, we’re still debating the question of whether humour can be a boon to our health and even to our physical fitness. As basic as humour is, researchers still have much to learn about it – as do some comedians. Regarding health benefits, says Michael Miller an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland Hospital (Baltimore), “The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be to exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day.”
Miller was a researcher on a study reported at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions a few years back that linked laughter and an active sense of humour with heart health. Cardiologists at the medical centre found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh at certain situations than subjects the same age without heart disease.
The study compared both humour and anger and hostility levels of 300 subjects, half of whom had either suffered a heart attack or undergone bypass surgery, with the other half free of heart disease. The former were less likely to recognize humour or use it to get out of uncomfortable situations, the researchers found. They were also angrier and more hostile. Of course, some of that may be a reaction to their illness; you wouldn’t expect sick people to be as jolly as healthy people. But 40% is a big difference, more than you might attribute to that factor.
MORE FUNNY EVIDENCE
Another study provided further support for the idea of laughter as a beneficial mental and physical activity. UCLA researchers had 21 healthy kids put one hand in cold water while they watched funny videos. The result? The children who laughed were able to tolerate the pain of cold water longer than those who didn’t. Researchers also found that the laughing kids had lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress.
While this study was small, and there was no control group, it still lends support to the healthiness of laughter. And given that we’ve seen no studies indicating any negative consequences of a snigger, chuckle or guffaw, it’s hard to argue against the idea that a little bit of funny helps improve emotional and physical well-being.
Just as we incorporate other heart-healthy activities into our daily lives, we might do the same with laughter, suggest Miller. “The ability to laugh – either naturally or as a learned behaviour – may have important implications in societies where heart disease remains the No.1 killer,” he notes.
Humour won’t replace exercise in the health equation, of course, but who wouldn’t sometimes prefer an episode of Friends to a gruelling cardio session? And today, humour is taken more seriously as a health factor than it was taken in the past. Hundreds of academics belong to the International Society for Humour Studies.
Although the health benefits of laughter have yet to be proven scientifically, laughter may help us beat stress, which contributes to heart problems, among other maladies. We may, after all, need a daily dose of laughter along with our exercise and lean diets. So be sure to crack up at least a few times a day. It can’t hurt, and it might very well help. No joke.
If you have enjoyed this article, you might also like the interview with Joe Hoare on Laughter Yoga.