Seeing the bright side of life may strengthen the psyche, ease pain and tighten social bonds
By Steve Ayan
- The concept of laughter as a cure for disease lacks scientific support, but humor may indeed have significant effects on the psyche.
- Laughter relaxes us and improves our mood, and hearing jokes may ease anxiety. Amusement can also counteract pain.
- Cheerfulness, a trait that makes people respond more readily to humor, is linked to emotional resilience—the ability to keep a level head in difficult circumstances—and to close relationships. Life satisfaction may increase with the ability to laugh.
Norman Cousins, the storied journalist, author and editor, found no pain reliever better than clips of the Marx Brothers. For years, Cousins suffered from inflammatory arthritis, and he swore that 10 minutes of uproarious laughing at the hilarious team bought him two hours of pain-free sleep.
In his book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient (W. W. Norton, 1979), Cousins described his self-prescribed laughing cure, which seemed to ameliorate his inflammation as well as his pain. He eventually was able to return to work, landing a job as an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he investigated the effects of emotions on biological states and health.
The community of patients inspired by such miracle treatments believes not only that humor is psychologically beneficial but that it actually cures disease. In reality, only a smattering of scientific evidence exists to support the latter idea—but laughter and humor do seem to have significant effects on the psyche, even influencing our perception of pain. What is more, psychological well-being has an impact on overall wellness, including our risk of disease.
Laughter relaxes us and improves our mood, and hearing jokes may ease anxiety. Amusement’s ability to counteract physical agony is well documented, and as Cousins’s experience suggests, humor’s analgesic effect lasts after the smile has faded.
Cheerfulness, a trait that makes people respond more readily to laugh lines, is linked to emotional resilience—the ability to keep a level head in difficult circumstances—and to close relationships, studies show. Science also indicates that a sense of humor is sexy; women are attracted to men who have one. Thus, in various ways, life satisfaction may increase with the ability to laugh.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle viewed laughter as “a bodily exercise precious to health.” But despite some claims to the contrary, chuckling probably has little influence on physical fitness. Laughter does produce short-term changes in cardiovascular function and respiration, boosting heart rate, respiratory rate and depth, as well as oxygen consumption. But because hard laughter is difficult to sustain, a good guffaw is unlikely to have measurable cardiovascular benefits the way, say, walking or jogging does.
In fact, instead of straining muscles to build them, as exercise does, laughter apparently accomplishes the opposite. Studies dating back to the 1930s indicate that laughter relaxes muscles, decreasing muscle tone for up to 45 minutes after the guffaw subsides.
Such physical relaxation might conceivably help moderate the effects of psychological stress. After all, the act of laughing probably does produce other types of physical feedback that improve an individual’s emotional state. According to one classical theory of emotion, our feelings are partially rooted in physical reactions. American psychologist William James and Danish physiologist Carl Lange argued at the end of the 19th century that humans do not cry because they are sad but that they become sad when the tears begin to flow.
Although sadness also precedes tears, evidence suggests that emotions can flow from muscular responses. In an experiment published in 1988, social psychologist Fritz Strack of the University of Würzburg in Germany and his colleagues asked volunteers to hold a pen either with their teeth—thereby creating an artificial smile—or with their lips, which would produce a disappointed expression. Those forced to exercise their smiling muscles reacted more exuberantly to funny cartoons than did those whose mouths were contracted in a frown, suggesting that expressions may influence emotions rather than just the other way around. Similarly, the physical act of laughter could improve mood.
Additional studies have shown that laughing at a funny film can cause a drop in the blood’s concentration of the stress hormone cortisol (although other stress hormones appear to be unaffected). Because chronically elevated cortisol levels have been shown to weaken the immune system, this mechanism could conceivably help ward off disease. Indeed, experiments have indicated that laughter increases the activity of immune cells called natural killer cells in saliva in healthy subjects.
In some cases, though, laughter may dampen inappropriate immune responses. In a 2007 study allergy researcher Hajime Kimata of Moriguchi-Keijinkai Hospital in Japan measured levels of the hormone melatonin in the breast milk of nursing mothers before and after the subjects watched either a comic Charlie Chaplin video or an ordinary weather report. Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle and is often disturbed in the allergic skin condition atopic eczema, which all of the 48 babies in the study had. Kimata found that laughing at the funny film, but not hearing the weather report, increased the amount of melatonin in the mothers’ milk. In addition, the laughter-fortified breast milk reduced the allergic responses to latex and house dust mites in the infants. Thus, making a nursing mom laugh might sometimes serve as an allergy remedy for her baby.
The idea that laughter itself, independent of humor, provides physiological and psychological benefits motivates proponents of “laughter yoga,” a group exercise in simulated laughter, which (like yawning) quickly becomes contagious. Many participants in such programs, which are growing in popularity, report feeling looser and happier after them. Some researchers are skeptical that feigned laughter has direct health benefits, however. Psychiatrist Barbara Wild of the University of Tübingen in Germany, for example, believes that the sense of well-being that people report after such sessions results from the social experience of giggling and interacting as a group and not from a direct physiological effect of laughter itself.
Of course, humor elicits various thoughts and emotions in addition to a social response such as laughing, smiling, groaning or verbal banter. Indeed, most humor researchers believe that the psychology of humor, rather than laughter per se, is what most benefits mental and physical health.
Humor is an intellectual skill that requires an ability to view situations in a particular light. Humor and comedy are often based on a logical twist, paradox or displacement. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter announces to Alice: “If you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk about wasting it.” And after Alice says she has to “beat time” when she learns music, the Hatter replies: “Ah! That accounts for it. He won’t stand beating.”
Understanding a reference to “time” as if it were a living thing with feelings requires the ability to shift perspective away from the conventional view of the concept. Clinical psychologist Michael Titze, founder of HumorCare, an association that promotes humor as therapy, believes the humorous perspective creates cognitive distance between yourself and the circumstances in a way that can be psychologically protective. As Sigmund Freud wrote in 1928, “No doubt, the essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display.”
Such cognitive and emotional distancing may help keep anxiety at bay. In a 1990 study Nancy A. Yovetich, now a pharmaceutical researcher at Rho, Inc., along with psychologists J. Alexander Dale and Mary A. Hudak of Allegheny College, told 53 college students they would receive an electric shock in 12 minutes (although no shock was forthcoming). During the wait, some students listened to a funny tape, whereas others heard a humorless speech or nothing at all. Those exposed to the humor rated themselves as less anxious as the fictitious shock approached than did those in the other two groups. In addition, participants who in a prior personality test had scored higher on “sense of humor” showed the least tension of all, suggesting that humor is indeed calming.
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