Call it “the phrase.” We’ve all heard it and it’s likely we’ve all used it.
Many people—regardless of whether they are stern or cheerful—have at one point uttered the words: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
The benefits of laughter are undeniable, but what about this seemingly simple action makes it so good for us? This conundrum has long captivated the minds of philosophers, scientists, researchers and those simply seeking to understand the curious pleasure of a good chuckle.
Norman Cousins, the acclaimed American journalist, is often credited with having sparked scientific interest in the matter when he published an article in praise of laughter in the New England Journal of Medicine. Cousins was famously diagnosed with a puzzling disease in the 1960s, after which he was told his days on earth were numbered. His reaction to this news was undoubtedly atypical: he laughed. Cousins found that laughing made him feel better and significantly reduced his physical pain, and he decided to harness its power to nurse himself back to health. He laughed every single day, and his lifespan was extended not by a few weeks, but by 26 years.
The medical community has since dug deeper into this phenomenon. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have found that laughter has both immediate and long-term benefits. While most of us are no strangers to the emotional feel-goodism that inevitably follows a belly laugh, few among us are aware that laughter is not only good for our minds but for our bodies, too.
Scientists have found that, when we laugh, we increase our oxygen intake which immediately stimulates our heart, lungs and muscles, and fuels the release of endorphins (the chemicals our bodies create for stress and pain relief). If we laugh regularly, these feel-good chemicals have long-lasting, positive effects on our bodies, such as improving our immune systems and strengthening our brains.
In her book Fingerprints of God, Barbara Bradley Hagerty states that Cousins’ somewhat miraculous recovery eventually led to a new field of study: psychoneuroimmunology. This realm, she mentions, studies how “our thoughts and feelings (psycho) affect the chemicals in our brain (neuro), which affect the hormones that fight disease or replicate viruses (immunology).”
Liliana DeLeo discusses this further in her TedTalk, where she explains some of the positive effects laughter has on our long-term health. DeLeo mentions that laughing protects our brain by reducing cortisol and adrenaline—both stress hormones, thus reducing our chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. She even goes as far as citing a Norwegian study that found that humorous people outlive those who fail to laugh regularly. Perhaps most interestingly, however, DeLeo states that fake laughter has the same benefits as genuine laughter, which is why she encourages us to exercise laughter regularly as we sit in traffic or wash our dishes.
We may find this odd at first, but there is power in this statement. If we spend most of our waking moments laughing, we leave less room for hopelessness, negativity and gloom.
Our immune systems need to be nurtured now more than ever. And so do our hearts and minds. Cliche as it may seem, it turns out laughter really is the best medicine for a number of ailments beyond the mental or emotional. Why not harness its power to make us stronger? Let’s allow ourselves to choose buoyancy and lightheartedness over heaviness and woe, pick the ebullient over the burdensome. Most importantly, however, let us consciously choose to do it every single day.
Yes, this year has been more challenging than most, but it has taught us that in the midst of it, there is room for joy. Keep finding ways to laugh at ourselves and see the humor in all kinds of situations for glee will always trump fear and heartache, if we allow it some room.
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