It’s no joke. Humor is good for your health. We’ve all heard the saying “laughter is the best medicine,” and research backs it up. A good guffaw pumps up your heart, increases your circulation, works your muscles and strengthens your immune system. Laughter can actually reduce the amount of stress hormones your body releases; these hormones can have a detrimental effect on your heart and other areas of your body.
Michael Miller, MD, a heart disease prevention specialist in Baltimore concurs. In a 2005 study, he gauged the effect of emotions on cardiovascular health when he showed both funny and scary movies to 20 healthy men and women. Dr. Miller found that laughter causes the muscles in the walls of the blood vessels to relax, increasing blood flow. “At the very least,” he says, “laughter offsets the impact of mental stress,” which is harmful to the blood vessels.
The research has come a long way since 1979, when journalist Norman Cousins wrote about humor’s effects. Believing that negative emotions had a negative impact on his health, he credited his victory over a life-threatening spinal disease to his belief that laughter eased his pain while inducing feelings of hope, confidence and joy.
Here’s what researchers have learned about a good belly laugh:
• It lowers your blood pressure. While you’re laughing, your blood pressure first rises. But after that hearty ha-ha, your blood pressure drops to a level that’s healthier than before you laughed.
• It improves your breathing. Lower blood pressure deepens your breathing, which relaxes you.
• It works your muscles. The exercise of laughing gives your abdomen and diaphragm a good workout. (Have you ever laughed so hard your stomach ached?!) The muscles of your thorax, neck, shoulders, face and scalp also benefit.
• It strengthens your immune system. By decreasing stress hormones, humor and laughter increase infection-fighting antibodies.
• It buffers you against depression, improves self-esteem, reduces loneliness and increases bonding with others.
• It improves quality of life, even for people coping with cancer or chronic disease, and improves pain tolerance.
Some researchers suggest that doctors ask patients about their “laugh history” because humor is so important in maintaining a high quality of life. Interestingly, studies have shown that the benefits of laughter are the same in different countries and cultures, even though what’s thought of as funny might be different.
If you’re someone who doesn’t laugh as much as you’d like, you have a number of ways to get started on your own adventure toward a better sense of humor:
• Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter and like laughter, it’s contagious.
• Get a “dose” of humor. Stop sitting around waiting for someone or something funny to come your way—go out and get it! Rent a funny movie, hang out with your silliest friend, read a funny book, make time for your favorite sitcom or check out the local stand-up comedy show. Do whatever it takes to tickle your funny bone.
• Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily—both at themselves and at life’s absurdities—and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.
• Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?”
Seek professional help if you’re down in the dumps. Sometimes depression, grief, anger and other emotions and conditions make it seem like laughter is impossible. If you feel like you’ll never laugh again, even though you want to, you might want to talk with your family doctor or a mental health professional about your situation.
If you can embrace the funnier side of life despite stress, your busy schedule, and anything else that may be getting you down, you may just laugh your way to better health.