In 2007, comedian Stephen Colbert was interviewed by Parade magazine about surviving childhood tragedy: When he was 10, his father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash.
He talked about how he was riddled with fear after the crash, and then one night, while apprenticing with comedy troupe The Second City in Chicago, he just started laughing. “Something burst that night,” Colbert said, “and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool.”
It’s difficult to be anxious and fearful if you’re laughing, which is why humor is such a useful tool (and by far the most fun) in combating depression. Charlie Chaplain once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
I suppose that’s why some of the funniest people out there — Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, humor columnist Art Buchwald — have journeyed through periods of torment. There is an unspoken message hidden within a chuckle — even the slightest cackle — that says, “I promise, you’ll get through this.” Just like the comforting hug of your mom when you were 3.
1. Laughter Decreases Pain
A team of Swiss pain experts presented their study on how humor can provide relief to chronic pain patients at the Congress of the European Pain Federation EFIC in Florence in 2013. Thomas Benz of RehaClinic in Bad Zurzach, Switzerland, said in the presentation, “Humor is a suitable strategy for increasing pain tolerance on the one hand, and for improving the quality of life in chronic pain patients on the other.”
This could be because humor activates the release of endorphins and relieves muscle tension. “Humor can be used specifically as a cognitive technique, for example, in terms of a distraction to control the pain and increase pain tolerance,” said Professor Doctor Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich. One of Ruch’s studies demonstrated that people laughing while watching a Monty Python movie, or one by the Swiss comedian Emil, were able to keep their hands in ice water longer than those who were not laughing. The increased pain tolerance was still present 20 minutes after laughing, showing some lasting effect.
2. Laughter Boosts Immunity
Humor can help us fight off disease, and it also aids our immune system. When we laugh, we breathe with our diaphragm, which stimulates the cleansing of the lymphatic system. The increased flow of lymphatic fluid passing through the lymph nodes eliminates toxins, and the increased number of lymphocytes circulating in the blood protects us from disease.
Laughter also decreases inflammation. In a 1996 Japanese study of 41 people with rheumatoid arthritis and 23 healthy subjects, researchers demonstrated that laughter reduced levels of inflammation-triggering cytokines in the people with rheumatoid arthritis.
In a study done at Loma Linda University in California in the 1980s, medical researcher Lee Berk, DrPH, and his colleagues discovered that levels of two hormones — beta-endorphins, which elevate mood, and human growth hormones, which optimize immunity — increased by 27 percent and 87 percent respectively when participants anticipated watching a humorous video.
3. Laughter Reduces Stress
The same Loma Linda research team that found in a 2001 study that laughter could boost levels of hormones that protect immunity later studied how the anticipation of laughter can reduce the levels of three stress hormones: cortisol, epinephrine (or adrenaline), and dopac (a brain chemical that helps produce adrenaline).
In the small study, blood was drawn from 16 healthy fasting males, each of whom was assigned to the control group or the experimental group (those anticipating a humorous event). Blood was drawn from both groups prior to the event (anticipation), four times during the event, and three times afterward (event and residual effect). In the anticipatory phase, blood levels decreased 39 percent for cortisol, 70 percent for epinephrine, and 38 percent for dopac. The way it works is that by engaging the diaphragm, laughing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms down the entire body and releases endorphins that counter stress.
4. Laughter Helps Prevent Heart Disease
Laughter could help protect you against a heart attack, according to a study presented in at the American College of Cardiology meeting in 2000 by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM) in Baltimore. They found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
Said Michael Miller, MD, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at UMM, “We don’t know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol buildup in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.”
Laughing regulates blood pressure and increases oxygen-rich blood flow throughout our body, both of which are critical to heart health. Miller explained that the ability to laugh, even as a learned behavior, could have important implications for societies like the United States, where heart disease is the No. 1 killer.
5. Laughter Burns Calories
Laughing even consumes calories. In a study presented at the European Congress on Obesity in 2005, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine researcher Maciej Buchowski, PhD, found that laughing expends energy and increases heart rate by 10 to 20 percent.
Dr. Buchowski and senior research specialist Karen Majchrzak assigned 45 pairs of friends and couples to a metabolic chamber in their research center and showed them clips of Bill Cosby: Himself, Saturday Night Live, Austin Powers, and There’s Something About Mary. Their results showed that 10 to 15 minutes of laughter could burn 10 to 40 calories a day, which may amount to about four pounds a year.
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Originally published on Sanity Break.