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Laughter is Good Medicine

  • Anthropological research suggests laughter and humor are genetically built-in, and that humor, historically, has functioned as “a social glue.” The critical laughter trigger for most people is not necessarily a joke or funny movie, but rather another person

Many studies support the notion that optimism has a beneficial influence on your health.

The Big Q: What about laughter?

The Big A: There is a lot of evidence suggesting that laughter is good medicine, too, both physically and psychologically.

Anthropological research suggests laughter and humor are genetically built-in, and that humor, historically, has functioned as “a social glue.” As noted in the Y 2016 article, “Did Early Humans Have a Sense of Humor?” published by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing:

“Much like shell beads allowed the wearer to signal that they are a member of a community, joke-telling builds community. Victor Borge is credited with the saying ‘laughter is the shortest distance between 2 people.’

Alongside the physical evidence of the expansion of human wisdom, perhaps laughter and humor is showing the increasing interconnectedness of human populations.”

Laughter: A Social Mechanism

Real, involuntary laughter involves mysterious brain mechanisms and triggers unexpected sensations and thoughts. When we laugh, our entire body may be affected, from facial expressions and breathing patterns to the muscles in the arms and legs.

Robert Provine, PhD has been studying laughter for 20 yrs, and in the video above explains some of the fascinating reasons why we laugh and what this primal mechanism reveals about our psyche.

According to Dr. Provine, the research he has conducted suggests the critical laughter trigger for most people is not necessarily a joke or funny movie, but rather another person.

After observing 1,200 people laughing in their natural environments, a process he described as “sidewalk neuroscience”, Dr. Provine and his team found that laughter followed jokes 10% to 20% of the time.

In most cases, the laughter followed a banal comment or only slightly humorous one, which signals that the individual is more important than the material. Often, there was a playfulness in the group and a positive emotional tone as well.

Notably, almost 50% the time it was the speaker doing the laughing, as opposed to the “audience,” but virtually all of the laughter occurred in a group setting. And 1 of the Key reasons why we laugh may be as a way to bond with others and strengthen our relationships.

The saying “laugh and the whole world laughs with you” is more than just an expression: laughter really is contagious.

The sound of laughter triggers regions in the premotor cortical region of brain, which is involved in moving your facial muscles to correspond with sound. 

As explained by Dr. Provine in a Psychology Today article: “Since our laughter is under minimal conscious control, it is spontaneous and relatively uncensored. Contagious laughter is a compelling display of Homo sapiens, a social mammal.

It strips away our veneer of culture and challenges the hypothesis that we are in full control of our behavior. From these synchronized vocal outbursts come insights into the neurological roots of human social behavior and speech …

The irresistibility of others’ laughter has its roots in the neurological mechanism of laugh detection.

The fact that laughter is contagious raises the intriguing possibility that humans have an auditory laugh detector — a neural circuit in the brain that responds exclusively to laughter. Once triggered, the laugh detector activates a laugh generator, a neural circuit that causes us in turn to produce laughter.”

It is thought that laughter may have occurred before humans could speak as a way to strengthen group bonds, as even today our brains are wired to prime us to smile or laugh when we hear others laughing.

Interestingly, while children laugh on average 300Xs a day, adults laugh only 17Xs a day on average.

Laughter rarely occurs in the middle of a sentence. Instead, laughter tends to occur at the end of sentences or during a break in speech, which suggests language is given the priority.

As, explained by Dr. Provine: “The occurrence of speaker laughter at the end of phrases suggests that a neurologically based process governs the placement of laughter in speech, and that different brain regions are involved in the expression of cognitively oriented speech and the more emotion-laden vocalization of laughter.”

That said, not all laughter is positive or beneficial. When laughter is cruel or when you are laughing at someone rather than with them, it can cause social bonds to break and result in serious emotional harm. At the cruel and insensitive end of the spectrum, laughter can be a powerful tool for exclusion, manipulation and even social control.

Laughter is good for our heart and cardiovascular health.

In a cross-sectional study of cardiovascular disease among 20,934 Japanese seniors, published in Y 2016, they found that even after adjusting for confounding factors such as high blood pressure, weight and depression, the prevalence of heart diseases among those who rarely or never laughed was 21% higher, on average, than among those who laughed every day.

The adjusted prevalence ratio for stroke was even higher, at 60%. According to the authors, the results suggest that “Daily frequency of laughter is associated with lower prevalence of cardiovascular diseases,” and “The association could not be explained by confounding factors, such as depressive symptoms.”

In the Y 2009 review, “Laughter Prescription,” published in the Canadian Family Physician journal, author William B. Strean, PhD notes there are “several good reasons to conclude that laughter is effective as an intervention.” At the start virtually all studies on laughter have demonstrated benefits. What is more, there are virtually no negative side effects.

“…conclusion about laughter and humor in the dental setting summarized the literature to date: ‘Laughter and humor are not beneficial for everyone, but since there are no negative side effects, they should be used … to help reduce stress and pain and to improve healing,”

Dr. Strean writes, adding: “Findings range from suggesting that, in addition to a stress-relief effect, laughter can bring about feelings of being uplifted or fulfilled to showing that the act of laughter can lead to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth, and oxygen consumption.

These increases are then followed by a period of muscle relaxation, with a corresponding decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Overall, the arguments against using laughter as an intervention appear to be … unduly cautious …

The arguments in favor of laughter as an intervention are grounded in the virtually universal positive results associated with existing studies of laughter. Although scholars and practitioners recognize the value of further study, more replication, and identification of specifics, the call for more application of laughter as an intervention seems warranted.”

When it comes to dosage, HelpGuide.org recommends getting a daily dose lasting 10 to 15 mins. Think of it like exercise or breakfast and make a conscious effort to find something each day that makes you laugh. Set aside 10 to 15 mins and do something that amuses you. The more you get used to laughing each day, the less effort you’ll have to make.”

Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively, and Laugh

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