Laughter benefits mental, physical and spiritual health

Laughter benefits mental, physical and spiritual health

By Melissa Martin - Contributing columnist

Giggles, a 1966 toy by Ideal, was my favorite childhood doll. When you opened and closed her arms, infectious giggling gushed out. We giggled together.

Some say love is the universal language and others say music, but I say it’s laughter. Have you listened to the giggling melody of children? Laughter is music. Laughing is a natural part of life that is innate and babies begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within a few months. A child’s laugh is as unique as a snowflake; no two are the same. Snicker, chuckle, chortle, cackle.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 31) proclaimed play as a fundamental right of every child and playing children are laughing children. Of the many gifts bestowed upon humankind, I relish children’s laughter.

A rolling belly laugh ignites harmony like a musical symphony. Contagious joviality and elixir of optimism, laughter produces smiles of plenty. Laughter is a feel-good potion and a universal remedy that soothes our weary souls, finely tunes our attitude, and releases our captive anxiety. Distressing emotions such as worry, anger, and sadness melt away when you’re laughing.

What is laughter? An emotion? A reaction? A behavior? Whatever it is, both kids and adults need more of it. Laughing is an outlet for mental health, physical health, and spiritual health.

Physiology of laughter

The physiological study of laughter is named Gelotology. Laughter increases intake of oxygen-rich air and stimulates lungs, heart, and muscles. Psychoneuroimmunology studies the interactions between the brain and the immune system and shows laughter activates changes in the autonomic nervous system by altering cortisol, the stress hormone, which reduces anxiety. Laughter also releases brain endorphins which promote emotional and physical well being. Two structures in the limbic system, the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are involved in emotions and memory, have been shown to play a role in laughter. Brain imaging research demonstrated that exposure to humorous cartoons activated the limbic system network showing that laughter is rooted in the biochemistry of the brain.

Sociology of laughter

Human beings laugh more with others than when alone. Research findings emphasize the social and conversational nature of laughter, indicating that it is a nonverbal method of communication and seems to stimulate a sense of emotional connection among individuals.

That’s why friends hang out together at parties, sporting events, and any excuse for a gathering. They want to experience laughter among comrades.

Laughter studies

In two landmark studies, published in 1989 and 2001 in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences and the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Dr. Lee Berk found that mirthful laughter produces physical benefits. He reported that laughter increases and enhances activity that fights cancer cells.

Robert Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, is a noted laughter researcher featured in the documentary Laugh Out Loud and is the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. He purported that laughter is a coping mechanism that helps relieve mental and physical stress.

Allison Crane founded the Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor in 1987, prior to Nurses for Laughter, utilized in hospitals. She expanded the program to include various healthcare professionals in order to promote the healing benefits of humor.

Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness, published in 1979 described how watching comedy movies provided relief from agonizing pain from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a life-threatening disease of the joints and connective tissue. Cousins documented that a 10-minute belly laugh provided two hours of painless sleep.

Dr. Hunter Adams, portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie entitled Patch Adams, donned a clown nose and comedy as part of his medical treatment to help entertain and divert suffering from hospital patients. Adams founded the Gesundheit Institute in 1971 along with the Global Outreach clown-training program. They visit countries at war and bring laughter to hurting children and adults.

Put laughter in your life

Will Rogers said, “An onion can make people cry but there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.”

Start a “laughter circle” in your home. Call your family members together and tell jokes, make funny faces, or just laugh out loud until genuine jolliness visits. Videotape your laughing family and watch it when you’re having a stressful day. Use glee freely and often with your children.

YouTube videos of giggling infants, singing puppets, and funny animals are my go-to remedies. A Tickle Me Elmo doll sits on my desk for stress reduction emergencies. A tiny cow with a press-here laughing button hangs from my key chain.

Daily life is full of funny happenings and comical events. Amusing memories reside in our brain and visit on our darkest days bringing relief through the offering of laughter.

“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” That’s what Dr. Seuss said.
Laughter benefits mental, physical and spiritual health

By Melissa Martin

Contributing columnist

Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She resides in southern Ohio.