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See Inside October 2005

A Healthy Laugh

Got problems? A little humor will help you get past them—and could even ward off illness


ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, a smile conveys a universal point: “I'm friendly, and we can get along.” Shared laughter goes even further, implying a kind of secret bond among the participants. For each of us personally, mirth affords a certain distance from our defeats. Comedian Bill Cosby hit the nail on the head when he said, “If you can laugh at it, you can survive it.” And as research on the subject grows, it is becoming more evident that laughing can make us healthier physically as well as mentally.

Laughter begins as an uncontrollable reflex when babies reach about four months of age. Soon they may giggle up to 400 times a day. Once in preschool, children playing with verbal nonsense, puns and tongue twisters learn that when they say things that make other children laugh, the others become interested in and like them.

Unfortunately, as children get older they are also taught to downplay this social tool by parents and teachers who emphasize the seriousness of life. The attitude seems to be: if you're laughing, you're not learning. As a result, educators often neglect humor. This is a big mistake because students learn better when teachers can present material in an amusing way. A comic anecdote helps children remember, and an entertaining approach creates a more relaxed, anxiety-free learning atmosphere.

Even the act of chortling itself seems to improve memory. Psychologist Kristy A. Nielson of Marquette University read a list of 30 words to subjects and showed some of them a funny video clip afterward. One week later the participants who had been exposed to the clip within 30 minutes of having heard the list remembered 20 percent more words as those who had not.

More generally, a good guffaw is just plain healthy. Rod Martin, a psychologist and laughter researcher at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, theorizes that laughter improves mental performance by accelerating the heartbeat, thus increasing oxygen supply to the brain. Humor also provides temporary relief from everyday problems; psychologists note that people who learn to chuckle at their own foibles, rather than letting annoyances eat at them, may find solutions to their problems easier to come by.

It is not even necessary to laugh out loud to improve thinking. A discreet grin can go a long way because the changes in facial muscles trigger positive emotional signals in the brain. People who manage a smile will often be rewarded with a better mood.

The Best Medicine

Researchers have been studying the effects of laughter on well-being for decades. The case of Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, who did not die until 1990 after having developed a chronic spinal disease in the 1960s, drew the attention of scientists to the possible therapeutic application of humor. When his physician was unable to help him with his excruciating back pain, Cousins wrote his own unconventional prescription: he spent hours a day watching slapstick movies and reading humorous literature. His success was astounding: after several months, Cousins claimed that he was nearly free of pain.

One of the founders of gelotology (gelos is Greek for “laughter”), Stanford University professor William F. Fry, also experimented on himself in the early 1960s. He drew blood samples at regular intervals while watching Laurel and Hardy and other comedic movies and had the samples analyzed. He found that laughter enhanced the activity of certain immune system cells responsible for killing infectious pathogens.

Since then, the science of pleasure has become a recognized discipline. Researchers such as immunologist Lee S. Berk of Loma Linda University have conducted numerous clinical studies that confirm the following physiological changes when we laugh:

 

  • The pituitary gland releases its own opiates, which suppress pain.
  • The production of immune cells increases.
  • The level of the hormone cortisol, which is chronically high when an individual is under long-term stress and which suppresses the immune system, is reduced dramatically.
  • Levels of the hormone epinephrine, which plays a role in hypertension and heart failure, decrease.
  • Antibody levels in the blood and saliva rise.
  • The number of natural killer cells increases, which accelerates the body's natural anticarcinogenic response.
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