Is it possible that a well-timed joke can actually improve your health?
Laughter is the best medicine. We've all heard it before, probably several times, throughout our lives. It's one of those pithy clichés that gets exclaimed so frequently that it has almost reached the point of redundancy - but does this proverb actually hold some truth, or is it just another ancient platitude passed on through cultural and oral traditions?
This truism actually has biblical roots and has been around for many centuries:
Proverbs 17:22 A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
A good, hearty laugh is well known to be able to boost one's mood, if only temporarily. But I found myself wondering if laughter has any quantifiable health benefits aside from a short-term morale boost.
As it turns out, there is actually an entire field devoted to the study of laugher - gelotology. Researchers within the field have found that laughter does indeed provide a bevy of physical benefits as well as mental and emotional ones:
When you laugh, your body goes through a number of physiological and chemical changes that improve your overall wellness. Muscles throughout your face and body become stretched out as your pulse and blood pressure rise. An increase in your rate of respiration helps provide more oxygen to vital tissues via the bloodstream. A hearty dose of laughter can often provide similar effects to exercise: one researcher discovered that it required 10 minutes rowing on an exercise machine to reach the same heart rate that he had after just one minute of uninhibited laughter.
Laughter also activates your body's T-cells, the specialized cells that fight off sickness and boost your immune system. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are reduced, lowering your levels of stress. The amount of immunoglobulon in your saliva increases after a good laugh, which helps fight off respiratory infections. Humor has also been shown to improve creativity, alertness, and memory: a Johns Hopkins study found that students who were taught about new subjects with humor during instruction saw an improvement in test scores.
What is most impressive is laughter's ability to reduce pain. There is a very convincing amount of evidence from numerous studies in which people suffering from chronic pain reported that upon laughing, they were far less bothered by their discomfort. Sondra Kornblatt, author of the book A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits , claims this dulling of pain is caused by natural pain-suppressing opiates when laughter triggers the pituitary gland to release them into the body.
Physicians agree that laughter has a positive influence on the human body, but at the moment there is not enough concrete data about the impact of laughter to definitively establish its quantifiable effects. The difficulty is determining the cause and effect of these positive outcomes to see if the relationship is causal or correlated - this is where the research becomes somewhat murky.
Regardless of whether the benefits are caused by laughter itself or are the result of some other factor triggered by laughing, the old proverb seems to hold true. The next time someone says to you "Knock, knock," you had better answer with "Who's there?". Its for your health, after all.