Friday, April 4, 2014

Laughter-The Only Cure-All "Drug" that Actually Works

I love to laugh. Like, I LOVE it. I mean, most of us do, right? I probably laugh more than I talk or at least, they’re equal. Sometimes instead of talking my friends/family and we'll just sit there laughing together from some joke or comment that nobody remembers because it was at least 20 minutes ago. Along with the old sayings like “an apple a day keeps the doctor at bay”, we grew up hearing “laughter is good for your soul”. But is it really? I think most of us would answer “yes” to that, but why? Could it be that laughter is actually as good for you physically AND emotionally?

It’s a good thing I’ve done all the research for you, so don’t worry! ;) I love to do research, it’s the nature of the beast in my field, and this is something that it super interesting to me because it’s universal. EVERYBODY laughs, though the humor might not be the same because of cultural differences, the biological process is the same. Why does it feel so good? Why is it infectious? What actually causes us to laugh? 

Considering how much we know about everything, we still don’t know a whole lot about laughter! Isn’t that crazy? The study of laughter even has its own name, GELOTOLOGY! What I’ve found is going to make you want to add additional doses of comedy and laughter into your life, but don’t worry; there’s no way to overdose on this healthy drug.

Laughter is caused by humor, which are similar things but definitely not the same thing. It’s the biological process that occurs in response to stimuli (humor) which produces an electrical wave throughout the entire cerebral cortex of our brain and then results in a physical response which has two parts: gestures (like a smile) and sound. These two things happen simultaneously, mostly without a conscious effort to do so. But it effects our full body- we can see a response in our arms or legs (I know I’m always slapping at my knee or stomping my foot!), as well as the constricting of stomach muscles, which you can feel sharp pains in after long bouts of laughing. But most importantly, it causes the release of hormones into your blood stream which makes you feel really good, and also makes you want to do it again. That’s what laughter is.

But why do we do it? Psychologists and Cultural Anthropologists believe that laughter is part of our bonding techniques. Think about who you laugh with the most- family, friends, and co-workers? Sure, you can laugh with complete strangers, but we usually laugh the most with people with whom we trust and feel connected to. It’s a cycle that is repeated- we laugh together to bond together; when we feel open and trusting enough to laugh with someone, it creates a strong bond, which creates more trust and openness, and in turn, makes us want to laugh more with them and create even stronger bonds. Studies show we tend to laugh more with other people than we do by ourselves (excluding external stimulants like watching TV or reading books), which suggests their theories are correct- laughter is meant for socialization, for connection and bonding with other people. But it’s also designed to make us HAPPY

The release of endorphins into your blood stream provides an instantaneous mood lifter, causing you to feel good. But it’s not just the release of your very own “narcotic-like” hormone that makes you feel better- after laughing, your heart rate and blood pressure drop below normal, making you feel more relaxed. It’s no wonder that laughter has been linked with lowering stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been evidenced by studies like the one performed at the University of Waterloo. In fact, a study done at West Chester University in Pennsylvania showed that students who used humor to deal with stress had a more positive mood.

Lee Berk and Stanley Tan from the Loma Linda School of Medicine in California found that “Laughter… sharpens most of the instruments in our immune system's tool kit. It activates T lymphocytes and natural killer cells, both of which help destroy invading microorganisms. Laughter also increases production of immunity-boosting gamma interferon and speeds up the production of new immune cells. And it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken the immune response.”

So every time you laugh, you're actually working to make your body healthier by reducing stress and boosting your immune system. In fact, laughter is such an effective "drug", there’s even a movement to use laughter as “preventative medicine”. And it's easy to do! Just follow this process:

1. Know your “humor profile”- monitor yourself for a couple days and observe which types of things actually make you laugh out loud. Be honest with yourself, it won’t help anything if you use the wrong type of humor! Figure out which comedy type suits you, no shame!

2. Now you have your profile, use it to build your humor library- books, TV shows, movies, CD’s, magazines, etc. Designate a shelf or specific spot for them so they’re easily accessible. Then, when you’re feeling down or stressed or anxious, reach for one of those things and spend some time laughing. Even just a couple minutes makes a substantial difference. PLUS- this definitely gives you a reason not to feel guilty about buying those seasons or movies that you love, AS LONG AS THEY MAKE YOU LAUGH! 

Patty Wooten, president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor says that “…by taking time out to laugh, you adjust your mood, your physiology, your immune system. And then you go back to work and face what you have to do." Laughing is your body’s way of boosting your mood, making connections and bonding, de-stressing and making you happy! So go ahead, indulge in it! It’s the one thing that you can never have enough of. You’re just one laugh away from a happy, healthier life! So go ahead, take a break, throw on an episode of New Girl or 30 Rock, and embrace the day!  :)


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