Babies do this by the time they’re three months old. Kids do it up to 100 times per day.
But as adults, we seem to lose our ability and some of us go days without doing it even once. I’m talking about laughter. The simple act of laughing can help you prevent and even fight cancer. As the latest research shows, in many cases, laughter is the best medicine.
Groucho Marx once noted, “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”
Actor and comedian Carl Reiner would agree. Reiner has been a comedic icon for seven decades (along with his buddy Mel Brooks). He believes humor is key to his longevity, and at nearly 98 years old, he’s probably onto something.
In his words, “Laughter is my first priority. I watch something every night that makes me laugh… There is no greater pleasure than pointing at something, smiling and laughing about it. I don’t think there is anything more important than being able to laugh. When you can laugh, life is worth living. It keeps me going. It keeps me young.”
In 2017, he created a documentary titled, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” It featured many people in their nineties who enjoy good health, humor, and most of all, an active funny bone.
Laughter is an old folk medicine remedy
Greek doctors used to prescribe visits to comedians as an important part of the healing process.1 And Native American medicine men used clowns to provoke laughter.2 Even the German religious reformer Martin Luther used humor as part of his counseling for folks with depression. He advised them to surround themselves with friends who could joke and make them laugh.3
The Bible also speaks of laughter’s health benefits. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” This suggests that laughter has therapeutic qualities, while gloominess makes you sick.
Norman Cousins’ remarkable recovery using laughter
Today, doctors seem cautious to “prescribe” laughter, sometimes citing limited empirical evidence.
But both case studies and scientific studies prove its value. And virtually every study shows positive health impacts.
Perhaps the most famous case study is Norman Cousins’ experiment on himself.
In 1964, he was diagnosed with a crippling, extremely painful degenerative disease called ankylosing spondylitis. Doctors gave him just a few months to live.
As an adjunct professor studying the biochemistry of human emotions at UCLA, he’d long believed that humor improved health.
These strong beliefs prompted him to request that his doctors prescribe him high doses of intravenous vitamin C. As an adjunct treatment, he watched funny movies and TV shows to induce laughter and mirth.
He claimed that ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep, calling laughter a natural anesthesia.
His unusual self-treatment saved his life. He went on to live for another 25 years, later documenting his “cure” in a book he authored, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient.4
Serious studies about our funny bone
Just because we don’t have randomized controlled clinical trials doesn’t mean we lack evidence of laughter’s powerful benefits.
Studies on laughter and healing began during the late 1960s and early 1970s – a time when the complex connections between the brain and immune system were considered highly controversial.
Hunter (Patch) Adams introduced humor into hospital settings. His approach was later featured in a Hollywood film starring Robin Williams. About the same time, a non-profit called Big Apple Circus brought professional clowns into hospitals to cheer up patients and promote an environment of laughter. Elder clowns now visit seniors in residential care facilities.
Today, there’s ample evidence that our emotions, mind, and body communicate with one other via a complex mix of hormones, cytokines, and neuropeptides.
In other words, your mood, thoughts, and feelings have a profound impact on your immune health. When it comes to laughter, research shows:
- Humor reduces (bad) cortisol and catecholamine levels, but boosts immune system antibodies and feel-good endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.5 Out-of-control cortisol, the body’s “stress hormone,” is linked to inflammation – a factor in heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more.
- A therapeutic laughter program (sometimes called “fake” laughter) in Korean cancer patients reduced anxiety, depression, and stress in breast cancer patients – even after just one session.6
- Laughter boosts NK (natural killer) immune cell activity and lowers stress levels, making it an incredibly useful adjunct therapy. High NK levels help you resist both cancer and viruses.7
- Laughter is linked to healthy blood vessels, and triggers vasodilation and increased blood flow.8 And let’s not forget the negative effects of anger and stress on heart health.
- Laughter helps you live longer. A huge Norwegian study found that those with a sense of humor had an increased propensity to get old. They also were more likely to recover from cardiovascular disease and infections.9
- Ten to 15 minutes of laughter daily can burn up to 40 calories – about four pounds of weight loss per year, according to a Vanderbilt University study.10
- Watching funny videos improved recall in older people by a striking 43.6 percent compared to those in the control group… who sat silently and meditatively while the test group watched movies.11
Full-body relaxation, feel-good endorphins, a healthy heart, disease resistance, calorie burn, a better mood, energy, courage in the face of difficulty… what’s not to like?
But let’s face it. Sometimes life just doesn’t feel funny. What’s more, some people suffer from over-the-top seriousness.
Are you humor-challenged?
How to add a daily laughter pill to your life…
When was the last time you enjoyed real gut-splitting laughter?
Performed a crazy stunt like a Chinese fire drill?
Or reclined on the floor with your head on someone else’s stomach for a round of “ha,” “haha,” “hahaha,” and so on, ending in an uncontrollable fit of belly laughs?
Watching funny movies is much easier today than it was for Norman Cousins fifty years ago. It’s as close as your laptop and YouTube or Amazon account.
What else can you do? Here are some ideas to jumpstart your imagination…
- Turn the edges of your lips upward. Practice smiling.
- When you hear laughter, move toward it. People are usually happy to share jokes or funny stories. So, when you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”
- Bring humor into conversations. Ask others, “What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you today / this week / in your life?”
- Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. You’ll take life less seriously if you talk about the times you took life too
- Leave reminders around your home and car to help you lighten up… a toy, a funny poster, a goofy screensaver, photos of fun times with family or friends.
- Write down funny events, amusing stories, and jokes. If you write them down, you’ll remember them. Then share them with others for greater mind-stickiness.
- Pay attention to children and emulate their bent for humor. They’re masters at being goofy and saying hilarious things.
- Get social. Spend time with playful people. Even if you don’t consider yourself funny, you can still seek out those who like to laugh and make others laugh. Laughter and mirth are best when shared with others.
- Check out laughter yoga or laughter clubs.
- Read joke books or newspaper cartoons.
- Don’t go to bed till you laugh each day. Put it on your daily must-do list.
No matter how long we have on this earth, laughter sure makes the journey through life more enjoyable.
You don’t need to “get” all the science to enjoy the benefits.
As laughter researcher Robert Provine states in the documentary Laugh Out Loud, “Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!”
Who knows? Maybe laughter will gain its rightful place as a first-line adjunctive therapy. But in the meantime, grab all the fun you can in humor.
- Kleisiaris CF, Sfakianakis C, Papathanasiou IV. Health care practices in ancient Greece: The Hippocratic ideal. J Med Ethics His Med 7: 6, 2014.
- Emmons SL. A disarming laughter: The role of humor in tribal cultures. An examination of humor in contemporary Native American literature and art (online). University of Oklahoma. [5 February 2020].
- Wells K. Humor therapy. In: The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine (2nd Ed.) (Longe J, editor). Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 2001, p. 1009-1010.
- Cousins N. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York: Norton, 1979.
- Berk L, Tan S, Napier B, Eby W. Eustress of mirthful laughter modifies natural killer cell activity. Clin Res 37: 115A, 1989.