Laughter is Good Medicine
“Being mindful is just pointing out all the bad stuff” someone wrote. Being a firm believer of mindfulness, it might surprise you that I completely understand this reader’s sentiment. Many of us go through our daily life in a fog so as to keep from having to recognize the reality. Mindfulness brings a great deal of that to light but seeing and acknowledging our dismay is not all that mindfulness is. It is only half of the practice.
Being able to see the humor in our situations in life is critical to living a healthy life. Yesterday I remarked about the irony of a book about grace falling down in front of me. The corner of the book had actually caught my arm and, being a new book, made a very slight nick in my skin. Being able to see the humor in the situation, though, actually enabled the small cut to heal faster because I laughed.
You read that correctly. Laughing, science tells us, can actually be the best medicine in some situations. Ten years ago science revealed evidence that laughter helps your blood vessels function better. It acts on the inner lining of blood vessels, called the endothelium, causing vessels to relax and expand, increasing blood flow. In other words, it’s good for your heart and brain, two organs that require the steady flow of oxygen carried in the blood. At a 2005 meeting of the American College of Cardiology, Michael Miller, M.D., of the University of Maryland reported that in a study of 20 healthy people, provoking laughter did as much good for their arteries as aerobic activity. Dr. Miller did not recommend that you laugh and not exercise but he did advise that we should try to laugh on a regular basis. The endothelium, he explained, regulates blood flow and adjusts the propensity of blood to coagulate and clot. In addition, it secretes assorted chemicals in response to wounds, infection or irritation. It also plays an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease. “The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries,” said Dr. Miller. “So given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium. And reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Dr. Miller also recommends laughter as a great tonic for other ailments. “Laughter offsets the impact of mental stress, which is harmful to the endothelium.” The researcher can’t say for sure exactly how laughter delivers its heart benefit. It could come from the vigorous movement of the diaphragm muscles as you chuckle or guffaw. Alternatively, or additionally, laughter might trigger the release in the brain of such hormones as endorphins that have an effect on arteries. It’s also possible that laughter boosts levels of nitric oxide in artery walls. Nitric oxide is known to play a role in the dilation of the endothelium. “Perhaps mental stress leads to a breakdown in nitric oxide or inhibits a stimulus to produce nitric oxide that results in vasoconstriction.”
It has been known for some time that laughter reduced one’s perception of pain, thus enabling a person to tolerate discomfort better. It also reduces blood sugar levels, increasing glucose tolerance in diabetics and nondiabetics alike. Laughter can improve your job performance, especially if your work depends on creativity and solving complex problems. Its role in intimate relationships is vastly underestimated and it really is the glue of good marriages. It synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned. Laughter establishes — or restores — a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, In fact, some researchers believe that the major function of laughter is to bring people together.
Life is messy. That is a fact and no matter who we are, we will face the “bad stuff” at some point. Being able to see the humor enables us to cope and move forward. Dr. Miller advises people to do some sort of physical exercise thirty minutes a week and to laugh fifteen minutes every day. This reminds us to not only be mindful of our physical health but also our emotional health.
“I believe that if people can get more laughter in their lives, they are a lot better off,” says Steve Wilson, MA, CSP, a psychologist and laugh therapist. “They might be healthier too.” As weird as it might sound, laughter is really a physical exercise for our bodies and our spirits. When we laugh we go through some physiological changes. We stretch muscles throughout the face and body, our pulse and blood pressure rises slightly and we tend to breathe faster. This sends more oxygen to our tissues within the body which in turn creates a series of positive chain reactions.
Maciej Buchowski, a researcher from Vanderbilt University, conducted a small study in which he measured the amount of calories expended in laughing. It turned out that 10-15 minutes of laughter burned 50 calories. Now do not get carried away and think you can laugh off excess weight. After all, it would take about twelve hours of laughing to counteract the effect of eating one chocolate bar. Still, laughing is beneficial.
The focus on the benefits of laughter really began with Norman Cousin’s memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins, who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful spine condition, found that a diet of comedies, like Marx Brothers films and episodes of Candid Camera, helped him feel better. He said that ten minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep. Research does not verify Cousins’ belief that laughter was the tonic for his insomnia, however, Many believe a drama could have done the same thing and that anything that takes one’s mind off the day’s worries would have been effective. Does this disprove the benefits of mindfulness? No. It does emphasize that our reactions to life are very important.
One of the difficulties science has in determining just how effective laughter is as medicine is that the cause and effect are hard to narrow down. Two things are known for certain. Laughter brings us together and since human beings are social animals, this improves their quality of life. Secondly, appropriate laughter is not a harmful thing and if you enjoy, one should keep laughing. Enjoying life is the best medicine of all.