Humor can make you healthier

Created date

March 21st, 2019
A man in a brown sweater laughs with another man, who is wearing a purple button down. Both are wearing glasses

Did you know that laughter reduces your level of stress hormones while increasing your level of health-enhancing hormones?

The ancient proverb “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones” has changed to “laughter is the best medicine.”

But medical science has shown there is more to it than laughter. “Laughter is the physical expression of humor,” says Karyn Buxman, R.N., M.S.N., expert in the field of applied humor and author of the What’s So Funny About… series of health books. “There are many aspects of humor that can add benefits to your health.”

The science behind it

“When we laugh it triggers a cascade of chemicals, specifically neurotransmitters in your brain, that make you feel happy,” Buxman says. “But that’s only the short-term effect.”

Studies show that using humor on a regular basis can also have long-term benefits.

“These effects are linked in part to cortisol levels in your blood,” Buxman explains.

Cortisol is your main stress hormone—also called the “fight or flight” hormone. It’s produced by the adrenal gland at times of stress. Elevated cortisol levels have been associated with an increased likelihood for anxiety, depression, heart disease, sleep disruptions, digestive problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration problems.

In a nutshell, laughter reduces the level of stress hormones and increases the level of health-enhancing hormones.

Many people can notice improvements in how they feel physically. “Whether it is through distraction, the chemical changes in your body, or both, humor and laughter have been associated with less pain and discomfort in people with chronic pain or terminal disease,” Buxman says.

“Humor is a whole-brain activity,” Buxman continues. “In other words, to laugh at something or find humor in a situation stimulates your entire brain, not just one region. That’s why you experience emotional benefits as well as physiological benefits.”

As part of therapy

“I have worked in oncology settings and other facilities where laughter therapists are part of the health care team,” says Teri Dreher, R.N., i.R.N.P.A., board-certified patient advocate and CEO of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago, Ill. “They are creative and weave humor into other modalities such as laughter yoga.”

Humor therapy is used in many settings. “In long-term care settings and senior centers, staff will often play comedy movies,” Dreher says, “or have group activities that involve laughter.”

It doesn’t just benefit patients. “It can be great for families and caregivers,” Dreher says.

Incorporating humor into your day

Using therapeutic humor is especially convenient for seniors. “It costs little, if anything, and it’s easy to access and implement,” Buxman says.

Even a sour puss can be encouraged to laugh. “We’re hard-wired to laugh,” Buxman says. “Studies show that even babies who are born blind and deaf laugh.”

Not everyone has access to a laughter therapist, so teach yourself some techniques.

One suggestion from Buxman is to learn how to play again. “Make a list of activities that are fun for you,” she says. “It can include games, playing with your grandkids, trading jokes with someone, or practically anything that makes you smile.”

Spend time with happy people. “Build your D team,” Buxman says. “That stands for ‘delightful team,’” she explains. “Think of your D team as your external humor storage. Call them when you’re sad or having trouble coping with something.”

Stock up on favorite funny things. “Build a humor collection,” Buxman advises. “Keep your favorite funny books, shows, music, magazines, and so forth around the house where it’s easily accessible. On bad days, pull something out and enjoy it.”

You can have humor without clutter if you choose. “Technology makes it possible to access many types of funny material,” Buxman says. “Blogs, games, websites dedicated to jokes, and opportunities to have some back and forth with other people,” Buxman says (see sidebar).

Fake it until you make it

You don’t have to let out a loud guffaw several times a day to reap health benefits. “Just anticipating a funny situation, such as waiting for a punch line or looking forward to a favorite funny show, can start positive effects on your brain and body, including lowering cortisol,” Buxman explains.

“If nothing seems to hit your funny bone, just fake a smile and a laugh,” Buxman says. “Studies show that even a fake laugh helps to stimulate the cascade of beneficial physiological processes.”

It can’t hurt to try. “People are often skeptical about the positive body and brain effects of laughter,” Buxman says. “It seems almost too easy.”

Funny stuff online

Source: What’s So Funny About…Heart Disease? by Karyn Buxman (2013)