Learning to laugh and to find humor even when times are tough also helps you cope with life overall.
If you’ve been following my blog of stories and reports on wellness issues, you know I get excited about the evidence of positive change. We already know from experience that a process of positive changes starts a chain reaction: one good choice leads to many others. But it really adds another dimension of benefit when those positive effects extend beyond our mood and motivation. Evidence is a powerful validation that our efforts are paying off!
The latest health research is no joke but it’s still okay to laugh.
Researchers at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine recently conducted a study on laughter and got some stunning results. While the cliché’ “Laughter is the best medicine” is known for making people feel better or endure difficult situations longer, it turns out that the benefits of laughter actually have a much more profound effect on your body: it can prevent a heart attack, even in people who have heart disease!
Michael Miller, M.D., a professor at the school and director of the study says, "We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack."
These findings obviously point to the correlation of laughter and mental stress; reducing the stress reduces the likelihood of a heart attack and it seems laughter is a very effective way to accomplish both goals. Half of the participants in the study had either had a heart attack or bypass surgery in the past and the other half had not. They were tested on how much or how often they tended to laugh.
Now, if you’re a pessimistic person by nature or habit, it might not surprise you to hear that the results confirmed that those who have heart disease didn’t laugh much. Coming that close to death or living with chronic illness puts a certain damper on things, right? But that’s exactly where the study findings are so compelling!
This study suggests that laughter should be added to the list of healthy habits that help prevent heart disease and early mortality. If you didn’t catch that, go back and read it again: “added to the list of healthy habits”. Our habits are choices that can surpass our temperament and triumph over our limiting beliefs. How we eat and our level of exercise is usually top of the list when it comes to coronary health tips. This study is exciting precisely because it’s examining the effects of how we think about our physical health.
Clearly, there’s a place in a healthy and balanced life to take life a little less seriously all the time! But even if you want to work on a lighter approach, how does one do that? What is laughter exactly? What if our lives aren’t funny right now? What if we don’t feel like laughing or making an effort to find something that might make us laugh?
The funny bone is in the brain.
Well, let’s start at the top, literally, with the top of your head, in the brain. Beneath the central cortex in the brain is a network of structures known as the limbic system. This area of the brain is critical to human survival: it helps us find food, make self-preservation decisions, define and defend our personal boundaries and territory. Interestingly, it’s also the part of the brain that is involved in our motivation, emotional behaviors, ability to meditate, and…to laugh.
Laughter is not the same thing as humor; it’s actually the physiological response to humor. Something strikes your mind as funny or humorous and then an entire process is triggered. Fifteen different facial muscles contract while the respiratory system draws in gasping, irregular intakes of air. This causes a rhythm of vocalizations to ripple through the body and out of the mouth as the gasps for air continue. While other emotions confine themselves to one area of the brain, laughter actually produces a circuit that runs through many regions. And, as we all know from gut-busting belly laughs, something truly hilarious can run through our entire body!
That circuit seems to be the exact pathway to a healthier mind and body, should we so choose to pursue it. If we allow mental stress to travel through our bodies, we open ourselves to injury, disease, fatigue, discouragement and depression. We are limited. On the other hand, if we find ways to overcome limiting beliefs, cope better with stress, and revolutionize our habits, that same circuit carries the benefits to every part of our body and mind.
More benefits of laughter:
· Laughing cleanses your mind and body: Part of what makes negative emotions harmful is that we tend to store them rather than express them. Even if we aren’t thinking about them, these thoughts and feelings are creating damage through biochemical changes. Our body has a defense mechanism to prevent this: the release of good-feeling chemicals. These endorphins are released when we laugh. The physical act of laughter releases the tension created by negative storage, purging it from our bodies, and replacing it with a flood of feel-good hormones that relieves pain and makes us happier and healthier.
· We have greater immunity: Along the same lines as the effect of laughter on our hearts, laughing also helps us more disease-resistant overall. The good hormones laughter releases triggers the increase of immune system cell growth, including T-cells, while simultaneously decreasing the stress hormones. You don’t just feel better when you laugh: your body is actively working to GET better.
· Laughing creates bonds with others: We learn to laugh well before we learn to speak. As infants, we communicate and interact through laughing and crying. When we mutually find something humorous and laugh with someone, we are experiencing a commonality that bonds us together. Laughing can end conflict and unite during difficult times, increasing our resilience. A recent study on the science of laughter found that we humans use social laughter as a way to bond similarly to the way primates groom one another; that laughing a relaxed and contagious manner is a form of “grooming at a distance” that is essential to maintaining a sense of community.
· Laughing helps you stay in shape: So you might have guessed that a big belly laugh is a great ab workout! You can feel it! But would you believe that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes of cycling? It’s actually an effective aerobic workout that exercises your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, leg, back, and facial muscles, and respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Your blood pressure goes down while blood oxygenation levels go up. That not only improves your cardiac function but also speeds the healing of damaged tissue.
Learning to laugh and to find humor even when times are tough also helps you cope with life overall. A good laugh can adjust your perspective almost immediately. This can offer clarity on priorities, help you see the way forward if action steps are needed, accept something that’s difficult, and cut an intimidating limitation down to size. Mental health professionals refer to it as “laughter therapy”: the deliberate use of humor to cope with things that aren’t usually funny. The science is reinforcing what those who’ve experienced already knew: laughter is good medicine!