Ha ha ha! This is a sound you may hear on a Mumbai park, a California beach or a London town hall. Laughter clubs — places where people go to laugh out loud together — are scattered all over the globe. Dr Madan Kataria, the Indian physician who came up with the concept of laughter yoga, which combines group chortles with yogic breathing, believes that laughter can “boost your immune system” and “unwind the negative effects of stress”.
The experience may be “wonderfully ridiculous”, as John Cleese described it on a trip to Mumbai a few years ago, but past and present scientific findings do point to the possibility of laughter having health benefits. The most recent news on medical research is that laughter can even help women who are trying to become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
Scientific evidence that comedy can strengthen the immune system dates back to 1985. A study published that year showed that the levels of salivary immunoglobulin A — a immune-system protein that is one of our bodies’ standard defenses against infection — increased after individuals watched a humorous video. Research done in 2003 pointed to an “apparent relationship” between laughter and another component of the immune system, the natural killer cells. These cells play an important rule in freeing the body from viruses and tumors so an increase in their activity through laughter could help the body fight diseases.
There are also numerous studies showing that laughter can briefly limit physical pain or discomfort. Norman Cousins, the author of the book “Anatomy of an Illness” (1979) who was diagnosed with an extremely painful form of arthritis, was one of the first to document the pain-numbing benefits of humor therapy. He claimed that ten minutes of “genuine belly laughter” allowed him to sleep pain free for at least two hours. This anaesthetic effect of comedy is believed to be related to the fact that our brain releases endorphins when we laugh. These chemicals are known to temporarily relieve pain and produce a feeling of well-being. That is also why laughing feels so good.
The benefits of humor don’t stop here. A scientific study conducted at Maryland University in 2009, showed that mirthful laughter can protect the heart. The human cardiovascular system benefits from laughter in that our blood vessels relax and dilate following something humorous and blood flow improves. Because heart attacks and strokes can be caused by blood clots, which form when the lining of blood vessels is damaged, laughing could reduce these events.
Another much-documented effect of a good laugh is the reduction in stress levels. In fact, this role of humor as a natural anti-stress mechanism was precisely what gave Shevach Friedler, the fertility doctor behind the IVF study, the idea of bringing a clown to the office. “Patients suffering from infertility undergoing IVF are exceptionally stressed,” Friedler told Reuters Health, “so I thought that this intervention could be beneficial for them at the crucial moments after embryo transfer.”
About half of the 219 women who took part in the study received a visit of a “medical clown” right after embryos were implanted in their wombs, while the remaining women were not entertained. The results revealed that 36% of those who had a laugh became pregnant compared to only 20% in the control group. More, when factors such as age, type of infertility and number of embryos implanted were considered, the researchers found that the women who were entertained were more than twice as likely to become pregnant.
While these studies may indicate that laughter is a good medicine, it is not clear that you can laugh your way to good health or to a bun in the oven. According to Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, one of the problems with laughter research is that the effects of similar activities (such screaming) are often not looked into. In Dr Friedler’s study, for example, another form of distraction or stress relief could have had the same effect in helping women become pregnant.
The American Cancer Society also alerts that “available scientific evidence does not support claims that laughter can cure cancer or any other disease”. But, they say, laughing can reduce stress and enhance quality of life. So while laughter is not the best medicine, it is certainly a safe, free, and enjoyable complementary method to improve health.
Maybe Dr Kataria, the Giggling Guru, is really on to something. Maybe we should all be gathering in parks or nondescript buildings flapping our arms like chickens and peeling giant bananas in an effort to transform silliness into infectious laughter.
Or maybe we should just go see comedy flicks with our friends more often. It will probably have the same effect, minus the ridiculousness.