Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter: The Best Medicine

young friendly asian female caregiver laughing with happy senior man in hallway of nursing home

“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.” – Norman Cousins

Although pharmaceuticals’ proliferation has eased mental illness suffering, humor is one of the most over-looked and effective treatments. Norman Cousins discovered that merely ten minutes of induced hearty laughter produced two hours of painless sleep. Cousins experienced minimal pain living with ankylosing spondylitis after several years of continuous laughter therapy. He ditched the opioids and aspirin in favor of Marx Brothers films and Candid Camera.

Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, medical doctor, clown, and social activist, is often invited to provide presentations at medical schools globally, inspiring students to incorporate humor into healthcare. Adams encourages people who visit families and friends in hospitals to bring humor and fun for healing. Adams founded Gesundheit! Institute, a community hospital, focusing on the importance of humor and play in the healing process.

Many physicians recognize the therapeutic benefits of laughter, recommending their patients to watch a funny movie, try “laughter yoga,” or attend a comedy show rather than prescribing medications. A laugh a day may keep the doctor away.

Humor is composed of three experiences: intellectual (wit), emotional (fun, joy), and physiological (laughter, smiling). Comedy always contains some measure of truth or self-awareness. Humor can be destructive or healing, expressing love, hatred, and aggression. In the saddest moments, levity induces a sense of optimism.

Therapeutic benefits of laughter

Mood

Many studies have shown that laughter can elevate moods, relieve stress and anxiety. Laughter increases the “happy” brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. Cortisol and epinephrine, the stress hormones, decrease with laughter. A study involving “laughing yoga” classes found that participants reported increased energy and reduced tension. Laughter can also alleviate depression and improve sleep quality.

Quality of life

Laughter can reduce the stress among caregivers and improve their psychological health. Quality of life markers among nursing home residents improves when introducing humor. Laughter therapy improves the quality of life for cancer patients as well as boosting their immune systems.

Cognitive health

In one study, watching humorous videos improved short-term memory, learning, and visual recognition among older diabetic patients. Humor and laughter play a role in creating a safe social environment. According to one study, people with cognitive impairment could engage in humor during social interactions despite difficulty recognizing social cues. Further studies may reveal the roles in comedy and laughter in adaptation to cognitive decline and holistic interventions for improved quality of life. Teachers who incorporate humor into their lessons create a fun learning environment. Students are more likely to retain main points when teachers interject jokes about relevant topics.

Learn how to leverage the benefits of laughter with these Nursing CE courses: Humor in Healthcare: The Laughter Prescription, 3rd Edition; Humor as a Nursing Intervention, 3rd Edition; and Healthcare Humor: Take Time to Laugh.

Pain reduction

A study (Lapierre et al. 2019) involving pain and muscle soreness showed watching a comedic movie for only 30 minutes significantly and immediately reduced symptoms compared to a placebo group that viewed a documentary. Behrouz et al. (2017) observed a 43% decline in moderate pain intensity after a six-week humor therapy program in a sample of older people residing in Iran’s nursing home. The intervention consisted of six weekly, one-hour sessions, including funny video clips, games, comical stories, humorous music, and jokes. The researchers conclude that humor therapy can potentially impact pain intensity and suggest implementing a humor program in nursing homes. Laughing also requires taking deeper breaths to help alleviate pain. The release of endorphins during laughter acts as a natural pain relief.

Cardiovascular health

Laughter is also good for your heart. Researchers discovered that intense laughter provides a short burst of aerobic exercise. A hard laugh can increase your heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption. Evidence exists that laughter helps blood vessels function more effectively by engaging the endothelium, the blood vessels’ inner lining allowing increased blood flow. Stress can release adrenaline and noradrenaline, resulting in blood vessel constriction. Laughter reduces the release of these hormones and pressure on the blood vessels. Additionally, laughter releases nitrous oxide or laughing gas into the bloodstream relaxing the endothelium and expanding the blood vessels. A good belly laugh releases beta-endorphins into the bloodstream triggering cells to release additional nitric oxide reducing blood pressure.

Immune system

Biophysical studies show that laughter stimulates the diaphragmatic breathing necessary for increasing lymphatic flow, releasing more lymphocytes—improved lymphocyte production results in better immunity toward all diseases, especially cancer.

Results from research indicate that laughter can strengthen the immune system further by:

  • Increasing the number and activity level of killer cells
  • Increasing activated T-cells
  • Increasing the anti-body immunoglobin A (IgA) fighting upper-respiratory infections
  • Increasing gamma interferon signaling various components of the immune system to “turn on”
  • Increasing the production of IgB to fight infected cells
  • Reduction of the inflammation-triggering cytokines with Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • People with asthma become more resistant to flare-ups

Social benefits

Laughter helps build social cohesion and connection. Telling a joke can relieve anxiety, promote communication, and act as a buffer against disagreements. A shared laugh is one of the most effective ways to build and maintain relationships and heal resentments. Laughter helps connect people during adversity. Further benefits of humor include:

  • Allowing for greater spontaneity
  • Letting go of defensiveness
  • Releasing inhibitions
  • Expressing authentic feelings
  • Promoting playfulness and creativity

Humor in healthcare

The use of humor in healthcare generally involves the lighter comic styles, while darker funny types require more caution. A good-hearted spirit is contagious and mood-elevating. Irony and satire can help healthcare professionals cope with stressors and facilitate interactions with patients. Caution is warranted when using sarcasm and cynicism. This type of humor is often hurtful and misconstrued.

When using humor with patients, it is advisable to be authentic and cautious. If a patient’s preferences are unfamiliar or they are experiencing anxiety, the darker comic styles are risky. Dark humor can potentially exacerbate fears and misunderstandings, especially with concrete thinking. Using tact is essential in understanding a patient’s humor preferences. Everyone does not appreciate humor and laughter, therefore, be cautious about cracking jokes with patients. Some individuals have a heightened fear of being laughed at, so sensitivity is critical when using humor.

Among physicians who work with dying patients, humor is one of eight coping mechanisms used to deal with this work’s extreme stress. Among nurses, humor reduces emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, increased personal satisfaction, improved coping efficacy and communication. Laughter and playfulness enhance the work environment resulting in greater productivity, reduced turnover, creativity, and stronger relationships.

Building resilience through humor

Humor played an essential role for Jews during the Holocaust, allowing them to survive unimaginable trauma. Humor became an integral aspect of spiritual resistance, becoming a pre-condition for the desire to live. The Jews used humor as a defense mechanism to cope with their suffering, fear, anxiety, and enormous loss. More than just a respite from pain and suffering, humor helped the Jews find new sources of hope, meaning, and purpose through their trauma. The number of famous Jewish comedians is not an accident but rather the result of an adaptive and protective factor for surviving through centuries of persecution.

Emerging evidence indicates that certain types of humor are associated with resilience. Adaptive styles use a cheerful, friendly mood to connect with others through funny comments or anecdotes or self-enhancing humor. In comparison, maladaptive styles use sarcasm to insult others to elevate oneself or self-disparaging words to gain attention. Self-enhancing humor is associated with fostering positive physical and mental health outcomes, whereas self-deprecating and aggressive remarks are associated with worse physical and psychological health outcomes.

Parents of disabled children experience more significant stress and worse mental and physical health than parents of typically developing children. A study (Fritz, 2020) found that adaptive humor facilitates caregiver’s ability to obtain support from others and reframe stressors contributing to mental and physical resilience to stress. Cohesion and flexibility develop with the use of coping humor by families of disabled children.

Exposing children to humor and laughter is paramount in developing resilience. Nurturing a sense of humor helps children cope with school stressors, relationships, and home life. Comedy benefits children by enhancing social bonding, stress relief, and pain management. Growing up with laughter propels children on a positive pathway where humor is predictive of better college performance.

Through humor, intimate relationships’ challenges can respond to disharmony and conflict resolution in constructive ways, building resilience. Nevertheless, avoiding problems in a relationship by employing humor is not productive. A study conducted with 3,000 married couples from five countries found that both husbands and wives were happier with a funny partner. Still, this trait was more important for the marital satisfaction of wives than husbands. Couples who use humor to enhance their enjoyment and quality of life together can bounce back from times of adversity. Women tend to enjoy sex more and initiate it if their husband is funny.

The therapeutic benefits of laughter are numerous, enhancing our quality of life; relationships; physical, cognitive, and mental health; and ability to cope with life stressors. Being funny is one of the best things we can do for our health. Studies show that laughter is a protective factor against depression. Reframing an adverse event in a humorous light can act as an emotional filter, preventing the negative emotions from triggering depression and anxiety. The next time life feels overwhelming, try relaxing with a good belly laugh!

To learn more about how to leverage the benefits of laughter in healthcare, we recommend the following continuing education courses:

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