A good laugh is both free and priceless—and you don’t need a prescription, permission, or an appointment to do it. Years ago Norman Cousins, the editor and writer, claimed that he had cured himself of a crippling disease largely by watching Marx Brothers movies. The book that came out of this experience jump-started scientific investigations of humor’s connection to health. But has laughter really turned out to be the best medicine?
Here’s a sampling of research findings from over the years. Studies have found that laughter has mildly beneficial effects on the arteries, blood pressure, and cardiovascular system in general; that people with asthma get some relief from watching a funny film; that laughter improves aspects of immunity, at least briefly; and that people tolerate pain better when watching something funny. Laughing vigorously even burns a few calories.
The most recent research, a pilot study from Georgia State University in The Gerontologist, looked at what happens when simulated laughter is added to a standard exercise program. It involved 27 older people (average age 82) in assisted living facilities, whose twice-weekly 45-minute exercise sessions included 8 to 10 laughter exercises, each lasting 30 to 60 seconds.
Participants faked laughing, but because the laughter exercises were combined with playful behavior and eye contact, and because laughter is “contagious,” it usually transitioned to genuine laughter, the researchers noted. In any case, “the body cannot distinguish between genuine and self-initiated laughter,” they said. (Similarly, other research has found that fake smiling can improve mood and reduce stress.) In addition, “when laughter is self-initiated as bodily exercise, older adults do not need to rely on cognitive skills to ‘get the joke,’ or a positive mood state to reap the benefits of laughter.”
After six weeks, participants in the exercise-plus-laughter workouts had improvements in mental health, aerobic endurance, and self-confidence, compared to their wait-listed counterparts who continued their regular exercise habits. Nearly all of the participants found laughter to be an enjoyable addition to the workouts and said it would motivate them to continue exercising.
Bottom line: It’s not surprising that laughter, especially sharing a laugh, can improve mood and make people feel better. Clearly, despite Cousins’s experience, laughter is not a proven treatment for any disease. Moreover, it would be cruel to suggest that not having a sense of humor somehow contributes to illness. Yet most people find that the ability to laugh is useful in adversity, and that a sense of humor, particularly if it’s kindly, can be valuable in getting through life, regardless of the research findings.
Also see Does Optimism Lead to Better Health?