Talk about a mirror reflecting a painfully accurate reality. “You don’t see me laughing very much, honey?” I stammered, “I… I… I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
It got me thinking: maybe, a good laugh would help me heal.
At the time, I longed to laugh like a child, but strangely found it difficult to do so. Sure, I could blame my lack of levity on the hardships I faced, but even before my health challenges, and the adversity we faced as a family, I had already become quite serious in my everyday life. Though I would chuckle now and then, somehow, during the course of learning “important” things, I rarely let out a real laugh.
Most babies are able to laugh within a few months after birth. After receiving positive social reinforcement for their laughter, babies start to exercise this skill regularly and with ease. Babies laugh without even having the cognitive development to “understand” language, meaning, or context. I still remember the first time my son laughed. He was three months old and laughed at the sound of my husband sneezing. That is all it took… a sneeze. The sound of his laughter was pure, simple, and glorious.
In the process of my healing journey, I realized that I lost my laughter, and the pure joy I had once known. Grown-up, serious, and productive, I focused my attention on all the “important” things that needed to get done. But, the consequence of all this busyness was that I became a shell of my former self. To help myself heal, I needed to find my mirth.
In his book Anatomy of an Illness, writer Norman Cousins describes laughing as a tool he used to help him heal from an autoimmune disease that caused pain and destruction in his joints. Norman was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in 1964 (though it is now thought that his illness was more likely a different form of reactive arthritis). Despite the poor prognosis, he began a program of happiness therapy that included daily doses of laughter while watching funny movies. He discovered that after ten minutes of laughter he was able to get two hours of pain free sleep. Encouraged by this, he kept up his daily laughter therapy. Over time, he achieved a dramatic recovery from his illness. He went on to establish the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA. Here, researchers explore the scientific evidence demonstrating the importance of psychological wellbeing on health and recovery from illness.
Science is beginning to uncover some of what happens inside the body in response to laughter. Laughter Researcher, Lee Berk, from Loma Linda University has found, in clinical studies, that laughter has positive effects on the neuroendocrine-immune axis by reducing some classic stress hormones.
Levels of cortisol, epinephrine and dihydroxyphenylacetic acid have all been shown to decrease after laughter. While decreasing the stress induced inflammatory cascade, laughter boosts the activity of our immune system. Specifically, the activity of Natural Killer cells (the cells that fight cancer), and the levels of circulating antibodies (the proteins that target infections) are both increased by laughter. Using the traditional comical story known as “Rakugo”, researchers in Japan have demonstrated that laughter decreases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1, (both are thought to be deregulated in patients with rheumatoid arthritis). Laughter also increases endorphins resulting in a therapeutically significant improvement of pain.
Laughter also has a positive effect on people with cardiovascular disease, increasing HDL (the good cholesterol), and dilating blood vessels resulting in improved blood flow. As an important adjunct to exercise, laughter has physiologic effects on the body that are similar to a light workout: increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. Evidence shows that laughter actually improves metabolism. Researchers from Vanderbilt University demonstrate that ten to fifteen minutes of hearty laughter consumes around fifty calories. There is evidence suggesting that laughter may even improve memory.
Savvy medical centers throughout the world are getting hip to the healing power of laughter. Some even offer laughing therapy in addition to traditional treatment. Studies show that patients in laughter groups have less anxiety, less need for pain medications, and stronger immune responses. Madan and Madhuri Kataria started laughter yoga groups in India in the mid 1990’s. Laughter yoga has since spread throughout the world. Interestingly, the Katarias discovered that, from a purely philological standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether the laughter is genuine or forced. The positive physiologic effects on the body are the same.
As part of my healing journey, I cultivate “laughter therapy” in my life. I deliberately seek out things to laugh about: amusing social situations, the company of funny people, comedy skits, humorous entertainment, jokes, books, internet videos and movies. I avail myself of the precious laughter that my children provide, and I participate more readily in the silliness that makes them laugh so hard.
With hopes of physiologic benefit, I also practice “fake” laughter. Since, we don’t have any laughter groups nearby, I do laughter yoga on my own. For example, while driving in the car, I practice forced laughter, but this often turns into real laughter, (especially when I notice the perplexed faces of people in adjacent cars who have spied me “laughing”).
To this day, laughter pours out of my children with ease. They love to laugh. Simple things, like silly sounds or made-up words, make them laugh. Like food and water, laughter nourishes them. Watching them, I am reminded to look for, allow, and practice laughter in my life. I have found that by practicing laughter, it has become more robust and frequent in my life. I laugh much more regularly now and with a greater ease. I not only look for funny things, funny things seem to be showing up more often in my life. When I am desperate for a fix, I simply pull up a video of a laughing baby on YouTube. It never fails to do the trick. Give it a try…
Need a laugh? Try this YouTube video of a baby laughing.
Or this video of a baby laughing hysterically at his father ripping paper.
The following are links to more information and humor resources:
Madan and Madhuri Kaderia are the founders of Laughter Yoga.
Author and Keynote speaker, Karyn Buxman, of the website HumorX, has a book series called “What’s so Funny About…”
Cliff Kuhn, MD. The Laugh Doctor. His book is “It All Starts With A Smile: Seven Steps to Being Happier Right Now. (2007)
Steven Sultanoff’s website Humor Matters.
Patch Adams of the Gesundheit Institute.
Robert R. Provine‘s book: Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, (2001).
Joel Goodman offers writing, teaching and speaking about laughter at The Humor Project.
The Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor is a wonderful resource and website for connecting Humor and Laughter Professionals.
 Berk LS, Ran SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, Eby WC, “Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during Mirthful Laughter”, American Journal of Medical Science, 298 (6) pgs. 390-6, (1989).
 Berk LS, Felton DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J, “Modulation of Neuroimmune Parameters During the Eustress of Humor-Associated Mirthful Laughter,” Alternative Therapies, 7 (2) pgs 62-76. (2001)
 Ishigami, S, Nakajima A, Tanno M, Matsuzaki T, Suzuki H, Yoshino S., “Effects of Mirthful Laughter on Growth Hormone, IGF-1, and substance P in patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis,” Clinical Experimental Rheumatology, 23 (5), pgs 651-7, (2005).
 Dunbar RM, Baron R, Frangou A, Pearce E, vanLeeuwen EJ, Stow J, Partridge G, MacDonald I, Barra V, vanVugt M, “Social Laughter is Correlated with an Elevated Pain Threshold,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences, (2012) 279 (1731) pgs 1161-67.
 Berk LS, Tan S, “Mirthful Laughter, as adjunct therapy in Diabetic Care, Increases HDL Cholesterol and Attenuates Inflammatory Cytokines and CRP and Possible CVD Risk,” The Journal of Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, (2009) 23 A990.1
 University of Maryland Medical Center, March 2005, http://umm.edu/news-and-events/news-releases/2005/school-of-medicine-study-shows-laughter-helps-blood-vessels-function-better
 Miller, M., Fry, W., “The Effects of Mirthful Laughter on the Human Cardiovascular System,” Medical Hypothesis, (2009) 73 (5) pgs. 636-639.
 Buchowski MS, Majchrzak KM, Blomquist K, Chen KY, Byrne DW, Bachorowski JA, “Energy Expenditure of Genuine Laughter,” International Journal of Obesity, (2007) 31, pgs 131-137.
 Bains GS, Berk LS, Daher N, Lohman E, Schwab E, Petrofsky J, Deshpande P, “The Effects of Humor on Short-Term Memory in Older Adults: A New Component For Whole-Person Wellness,” Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, (2014) 28 (2) pgs 16-24.