What are the healing properties of humor?

Quick Answer
Therapy that uses humor to relieve physical and emotional problems.
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Overview

The Old Testament references the healing properties of humor: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Throughout the centuries, court jesters have been hired by monarchs to relieve the stress of governmental duties. As early as the thirteenth century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from pain.

In modern times, a systematic approach appears to be developing, consisting of exposure to true mirthful laughter in a supportive environment, under the guidance of a qualified leader or therapist, and combined with attitudinal healing and conventional medicine.

Mechanism of Action

Laughter is thought to trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Laughter relaxes muscles, which may then also reduce four neuroendocrine hormones associated with the stress response: epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone.

Laughter moves lymph fluid around the body because of the convulsions that come from the process of laughing. This process helps clear waste products from organs and tissues and boosts the immune system. Laughter is also thought to boost the immune system by increasing both salivary immunoglobulin (IgA) and blood levels of IgA, along with IgM and IgG, a substance called complement 3, which helps antibodies destroy infected cells. Laughter boosts the immune system also by helping the body increase the number and activity of natural killer cells, the number and level of activation of helper T cells, and the ratio of helper to suppressor T cells. Laughter also is thought to increase levels of gamma interferon, a complex substance that plays an important role in the maturation of B cells, the growth of cytotoxic T cells, and the activation of natural killer cells.

Finally, laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand to increase blood flow.

Uses and Applications

Researchers have described different types of humor. Passive humor is created through entertainment, such as watching a film or reading a book. Humor production involves finding humor in stressful situations.

Hospitals and ambulatory care centers have incorporated spaces where humorous materials can be accessed, and they often have clowns and comedians perform or interact with patients to help make them laugh. Other hospitals create what are called laughter clubs or use volunteer groups to visit hospitalized persons to provide laughter. Another type of laughter therapy is laughter yoga.

Scientific Evidence

No double-blind studies have been conducted on laughter therapy, but many observational studies exist. The most well-known record of the benefits of laughter and humor healing is the book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient by Norman Cousins. In 1964, Cousins was diagnosed with a debilitating inflammatory condition. He experimented with laughter (among other complementary therapies) by systematically watching the television show Candid Camera, by watching Marx Brothers films, and by reading humorous books. He wrote “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”

The first study to prove that laughter helps heart health was performed by researchers at the University of Maryland and published in 2000. In this study, persons with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations, compared with people of the same age without heart disease. In the study, researchers compared the humor responses of three hundred people, one-half of whom either had suffered a heart attack or had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. The other one-half were healthy, age-matched participants who did not have heart disease.

In another study at the University of Maryland (2005), some patients were shown disturbing films and others were shown humorous films. The funny films enhanced blood vessel health.

In a five-year study of persons with leg ulcers, researchers at the University of Leeds’ School of Healthcare showed that laughing gets the diaphragm moving, playing a vital part in moving blood around the body. In a separate study by Loma Linda University in Southern California, researchers studied men and women taking medication for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol and proved that those prescribed mirthful laughter in the form of thirty minutes of comedy every day showed considerable reduction in stress hormone levels.

Choosing a Practitioner

Usually a person does not choose a single practitioner but is placed in a group when already being treated at an institution. It also is plausible that a person could self-treat.

Safety Issues

Laughter therapy is cost-effective and noninvasive.

Bibliography

Bennett, Paul N, et al. “Laughter and Humor Therapy in Dialysis.” Seminars in Dialysis 27.5 (2014): 488–493. MEDLINE Complete. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

“Laughter Therapy.” Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Rising Tide, 2015. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

Cousins, Norman. Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Han, Byong-Hyon. Therapy of Social Medicine. Singapore: Springer, 2016. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

Stewart, Susan M. “Laughter: Nature’s Healing Refrain.” Healing with Art and Soul: Engaging One’s Self Through Art Modalities. Ed. Kathy Luethje. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. Print.

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