Laugh your socks off, it’s good for you

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.

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Group practicing laughter yoga in a park (source: Alicia Dattner’s website).

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.

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7 thoughts on “Laugh your socks off, it’s good for you

  1. Laura Wheeler

     What a happy post to read on blue Monday… (allegedly the most depressing day of the year)!  These results are fascinating in the sense that laughing can help women going through IVF treatment by what seems like a huge percentage (16%), but unsurprising as I have always believed laughing has powers beyond what we understand. I also think the idea of a "medical clown" is ingenious, and should be an obligatory part of hospital care… as you correctly pinpointed laughing reduces stress, it is free, safe and enjoyable.

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  2. Barbara Ferreira

    I wasn’t even aware that today was, allegedly, the most depressing day of the year, but I’m glad I timed my post about laughter well! 

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  3. Austin Elliott

     Re "Blue Monday" /  "the most depressing day of the year", "allegedly" is right (though far too polite!).. Read Ben Goldacre here and (2011 update) here to see what a crock of sh*te the whole thing is.. 
    PS Think your last line is right, Barbara. The whole topic has a good whiff of pseudoscience (and perhaps people trying to sell you stuff) about it. Though being happy and doing stuff you enjoy is obviously a good thing.
    Sorry to be such a grumpy old misery.

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  4. Laura Wheeler

    That’s okay Austin, I was certainly following Ben’s tweets about Blue Monday- and do completely agree with you both- however I am much less vocal about the whole thing 🙂
    I think your right, it could be that people like the ‘Giggling Guru’  are exploiting science (and people) to make money….or they could just genuinely believe that what they are doing is for the greater good..

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  5. Barbara Ferreira

    Actually, laughter yoga classes are free (or are supposed to be). The guy makes his money by going around the world giving talks about the concept.  So I do think laughter yoga instructors genuinely believe they are doing all the laughter stuff for the greater good. Whether or not "science" backs them up, that’s a different story. But if a person (with a condition or not) feels good after a class then, why not keep doing it? The final line of the post expresses my opinion: I’d rather just laugh with my friends more often!

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  6. Austin Elliott

    @Laura/Barbara
    I think a lot of practitioners of "esoteric" therapies are completely sincere in their belief that what they do is doing good. Unlike real doctors, though, they often don’t appreciate that there are possibilities that they do harm too.  
    And pleased to hear the classes are free, Barbara. That is something, anyway. 
    It is, like I said, easy to come across as humourless when being a bit unenthusiastic about these sort of things. Obviously I’ve nothing against having a laugh. And I have nothing against Yoga either – I used to go to classes regularly before I got too (i) busy and (ii) immobile. I dare say this laughter stuff does no harm, and who could quarrel with "spreading some joy"? There is, though, a recurring danger that once people buy into one bit of  "alternative reality"  especially in the health arena, (like "laughter yoga can improve your health"…?), that tends to open the door to all sorts of other stuff that may be less benign.
    I am reminded a bit of Patch Adams, the guy immortalized in a dire Robin Williams movie some years back. I could completely agree with some of Adams’ ideas (it’s a scandal that America has had such an unequal access to healthcare, laughter is good and life-affirming etc etc), but integrating the real medical stuff with all sorts of alternative nonsense?  Like acupuncture?  Hmmm.  And (far worse) naturopathy? And (worse still) homeopathy?  
    Anyway, the problem always tends to be that the alternative people are not content with anything less than that their schtick should be right in there alongside the real medicine and allotted the same status – even though the evidence the alternative stuff does anything is almost always abysmal to non-existent. 
    Sorry, ranting again. 
    BTW, the idea that "laughter is a good thing" obviously doesn’t start with laughter yoga, and is as old as human history. For a 20th century example, I like the movie Sullivan’s Travels, made in 1941 and well worth looking out.  Especially if you’ve seen the Coen Brother’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which has many connections to the earlier film.
     
     
     
     

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  7. Barbara Ferreira

    Austin, I agree that having people believe in the "health benefits" of laughter yoga might be a slippery slope. I guess the point both me and Laura were trying to make is that laugher is indeed a good thing (which, as you correctly pointed out, is a very old idea). The yoga is a possibly futile addition to the equation.
    As for Patch Adams, I had no idea his centre had become a place where dubious alternative-medicine practices are used! Why didn’t he stop at the laughter part? Why?! Slippery slope…

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