The Many Health Benefits of a Good Belly Laugh

Couple Laughing TogetherIt 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.

Through Laughter the Body Releases
Endorphins That Act Like Opiates

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Many Health Benefits of a Good Belly Laugh

  1. Hi I am a high school student and I am doing a health project for school. The projects revolves around a questions that I have created. That question is “How does laughter affect my immune system?” I was wandering if you had any other possible answers to this other than what you included in your blog. Thanks for reading this! Your blog was great!

    • Hi Allie,

      I think you’ve chosen a great school project – congratulations! I suggest you follow the links highlighted in my article, which may lead you to additional sources.

      Also, try the movie “Patch Adams” (1998) with Robin Williams, which is based on the true story of a medical student’s efforts to improve hospital patients’ quality of life through humor. I also recommend reading “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” by Norman Cousins (W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), which I quoted in the article as well as several others on my blog.

      Thank you for your comment and for your interest in my blog.

      Timi

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