A growing body of evidence demonstrates mirthful laughter is good for the soul — of doctors and patients
If we were to design a “best” therapy, it would have multiple benefits, carry a low risk of unintended side effects, be easily implemented and complied with, and be low-cost. Mirthful laughter fulfills all of these traits. While it may be ironic to apply the unemotional objectivity of the scientific method to study laughter, there are real data to support the assertion that laughter is good for the soul, and “laughter is the best medicine.”
The power of laughter
Intuitively, most would agree that laughter is enjoyable, sought after, and socially contagious. Laughter research was described well by Mark Twain, who said, “Studying humor is like dissecting a frog — you may know a lot but you end up with a dead frog.”
Laughter has been partially dissected. A growing body of evidence demonstrates the positive effects of mirthful laughter on the brain, immune system, inflammatory markers, blood pressure, stress hormones, pain levels, relaxation and mood:
Brain — Memory, recall and cognitive processing were all enhanced with laughter. EEG measurements of the gamma wave band frequency (31-40 Hz) were increased by mirthful laughter, a wavelength that accompanies brain health.1-3
Immunity — Laughter has an especially profound effect on several areas of immunity. These include increased salivary IgA,4 increased immunoglobulin A,5 increased lymphocyte formation,6 increased natural killer cell activity,7,8 and a general decrease in the immune-compromising chemistry of stress.9
Inflammation — The use of laughter was demonstrated to reduce the important marker of inflammation, C-reactive protein (CRP).10
Blood pressure — Mirthful laughter decreases both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.11
Stress hormones — Hormone levels will predictably change with distress vs. eustress (positive stresses). The distress levels trend all health indicators in a negative direction. In contrast, mirthful laughter induces hormonal changes typically associated with greater health and longevity.
With laughter, the following is seen:
- Decreased serum cortisol6,12-14
- Decreased growth hormone12
- Decreased serum dopac12
- Increased beta-endorphins15
Laughter is good for the soul — and reducing pain levels
A pioneer experiment involving laughter was conducted by Norman Cousins, who contracted ankylosing spondylitis, as described in Anatomy of an Illness.
“Ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and could give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”16
Laughter raises the discomfort thresholds17 and the ability to tolerate pain is improved after exposure to a humorous movie.18 In another study, analgesic use after surgery was reduced by 61% in patients using laughter as compared with no laughter.19
Other benefits include:
Relaxation — Mirthful laughter-induced muscle tone relaxation often lasting up to 45 minutes.20
Mood — Laughter decreases anxiety.21 This was found to be profound for gravely sick patients22 or patients with depression.23
Happy Workplace — Laughter introduced to the workplace improves creativity, productivity, motivation, morale24 and overall psychological well-being.25
The physiology of laughter
Our first laughs usually occur during infancy during weeks 5-9.26 Our facial muscles contract, raising the upper lip, drawing the mouth corners outward and upward, and creasing the skin to form “laugh lines.”
Eyes brighten and sometimes tear. We make sounds ranging from silence to “ha ha ha” to howls. We contract our arms, sway our heads, heave at the chest, and bend forward while holding the abdomen. Some of us weaken, fall down or can become incontinent.
Mirth is a full-body experience; brain, psyche, muscles, cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems. Laughter is a low-cost, non-invasive therapy with few, if any, contraindications or negative side effects. Research has demonstrated potent favorable effects, both subjective and objective, for longevity, enhanced immune response and short-term analgesia.
Compliance is easily imagined and no significant patient training is required. Laughter is compatible with all other therapies and could be included in every treatment plan. Truly, laughter is good for the soul, and is such a potent item that if the Food and Drug Administration ever finds out about this, they may make it by prescription only.
“Always laugh when you can; it is cheap medicine.”
― Lord Byron
ALAN COOK, DC, has been in practice since 1989. He ran the Osteoporosis Diagnostic Center (1996-2019), participated in four clinical trials and lectured nationally. He is currently working with the Open Door Clinic system in a multi-disciplinary setting and is providing video-based continuing education with EasyWebCE.com, where he can be contacted.