This Month’s Featured Article

Happy Health

By Published On: January 2nd, 2024

“Modern medicine falls short of your complaint.” – Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

Baaaahahaha. Tee-hee-hee. Giggle-giggle-cackle-snicker-chortle-chuckle-snort. Guffaw!

Feel better now? Of course you do. I know, I know, it may not be the best idea to laugh out loud while standing on your favorite local street corner, but hey, in the interest of enjoying a healthy existence, it might not hurt.

I spoke with Dr. Pete Smiglin. (Not his real name. In fact, he’s not even a real doctor. In the interest of complete honesty, he’s not even a real person.) Dr. Pete was more than happy to help me dig into the effect laughter and humor have on one’s overall health and well-being.

Laughter is the best policy

For this, we first looked into Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient, published in 1979. Cousins, editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review, had been struck with ankylosing spondylitis in 1964 and given a 1-500 chance of full recovery. Recalling a book he’d once read that discussed the “negative effects of the negative emotions on body chemistry,” he wondered whether it was “possible that love, hope, faith, laughter, confidence, and the will to live have therapeutic value.” Cousins set about concocting a plan to solve this question and facilitate his recovery. 

Racked with pain and convinced that the ton of painkillers he was swallowing every day were doing him more harm than good, Cousins turned to such strategies as watching Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films in the effort to induce laughter. “It worked,” Cousins wrote. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” Not only that, but measurements taken of the inflammation ravaging his body quantified that there was indeed a physiological basis to a laughter-is-the-best-policy theory.

Let’s toddle on over to the Mayo Clinic, where they maintain that “data is mounting about the positive things that laughter can do.” Such as? In the short-term, laughter is capable of positively stimulating a number of organs, activating and relieving stress response, and soothing tension, while longer-term impacts may be found in an improved immune system, an increase in personal satisfaction, an improved mood, and, as Cousins found, pain relief. 

How to make this laughter happen? According to the Mayo Clinic, a good place to start is to fill your environment with humor, be that watching funny movies or TV shows, reading a humor piece, or maybe sharing a laugh with someone. Try some laughter yoga, which is apparently a thing. 

Dr. Smiglin suggested we look into the work of Anne Belcher, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN, who has been known to perform such offbeat acts as blowing bubbles in the direction of other drivers when stuck in a traffic jam. Word is, this funky move diffused the tension of the moment. Dr. Belcher’s unofficial motto: “Laugh more and you’ll feel better.”

“It’s all about living with hope,” Dr. Belcher told the Vallejo Times-Herald. “It doesn’t matter if it’s called faith, a sense of optimism, a positive outlook, or a good laugh. Mind does matter when it comes to health. So, if laughter or spirituality seem to be helping a patient, I counsel my nursing colleagues to go for it.”

“Feel-good” endorphins

Meanwhile, HealthAdvocate, in Laughing Your Way to a Strong Immune System, reports that “lab tests showed that the immune systems of ‘laughers’ tend to release more disease-fighting T cells from the spleen into the bloodstream than do the systems of ‘non-laughers.’ ‘There’s no doubt that mirthful laughter stimulates the quantity of T cells and also their vitality,” stated renowned Stanford University Medical School psychiatrist Dr. William Fry.

But how? And why? Is laughter-as-treatment the real deal or simply a bunch of foo-foo juice? 

Bootstrapping onto the Mayo Clinic’s observations, Dr. Smiglin had a few thoughts of his own after reading up on the matter. A partial list of what he came up with: Laughter increases heart and respiratory rates as well as oxygen consumption. It positively affects heart function. It lowers the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and activates a reward system in the brain. It raises levels of “feel-good” beta-endorphins, while increasing human growth hormones.

At the Cleveland Cline, Grace Tworek, PsyD, points out that much of modern life is spent with we humans more or less permanently poised in a flight-or-fight response, which ultimately results in deleterious health effects, including obesity, cancer, heart disease, and the like. “Letting out a good laugh makes you feel more relaxed because it disarms your nervous system. If you think about a moment when you were finding humor in life, it can be like nothing else mattered but that genuine joy that you were feeling,” she said.

Unless you laugh so hard you fall off a bridge, opines Dr. Smiglin, it’s hard to see the downside in putting laughter to use as a tool for keeping one’s self on the path to good health. •