By Dr. Nina Radcliff
Do you remember that last time you had a good, hearty laugh? Just thinking about such a time can bring a smile to our face and lift our spirits. And how about those precious giggles and joyous bouts of laughter of young children? I don’t think there is anything more contagious and heart-warming. When I hear my daughter and her friends laugh, it is sheer delight. Josh Billings aptly stated in a wonderful quote, “Laughter is the fireworks of the soul.” And too, there is great wisdom in the Proverb (17:22), “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” It’s true!! There are great health benefits from laughing as it strengthens your immune system, triggers the release of endorphins that lifts your mood, helps protect your heart and diminishes pain while protecting you by reducing effects of stress.
The ability to laugh is a powerful health resource, mentally, emotionally and physically. And too, it is a powerful agent in keeping relationships healthy. Studies have shown that a strong, positive bond is created when we laugh with one another.
So when was the last time you remember laughing out loud? Hopefully you are one of the fortunate ones that has enjoyed the delights of laughing recently – and the powerful preventive benefits its joy offers. There is so much to love about laughter – let’s take a look at some of its many benefits to promote wellness and wellbeing in everyday life, at home, work and at play.
Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Laughter
What is laughter?
While the brain mechanisms behind laughing (and smiling) remain a mystery, it is often a spontaneous response to humor or other visual, auditory, or emotional stimuli. And, too, it can occur on command–as either voluntary or contrived. When we laugh, air is forced through the vocal cords as a result of chest wall contractions, in particular from the diaphragm. It is often followed by a deep inspiration of air. Thus, laughter recruits a number of muscles—respiratory, laryngeal, and facial. And when “exuberant,” it can also involve the arms and legs.
When do humans begin laughing?
Our first laugh typically occurs between 3 to 4 months of age—even before we learn to speak! It is believed that a baby’s laugh serves as a way to communicate, bond, and, too, explore sound and vocalization.
Is it contagious?
Yes. The saying “laugh and the whole world laughs with you” is not just figurative, it is literal. When we hear laughter, it triggers an area in our brain that is involved in moving the muscles in our face, almost like a reflex. This is one of the reasons television sitcoms have laugh tracks—a separate soundtrack that contains the sound of audience laughter. We are more likely to find the joke or situation funny and chuckle, giggle, or guffaw.
There has been much written that laughter is not primarily about humor, but, instead, social relationships. When we laugh, we create a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people. In fact, with romantic partners, shared laughter—when you laugh together–is an indicator of relationship well-being, in that it enhances closeness and perceptions of partner supportiveness.
Can shed pounds
In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found that 15 minutes of genuine laughter burns up to 40 calories, depending on the individual’s body weight and laughter intensity. While this cannot replace aerobic physical activity, 15 minutes of daily LOL, over the course of a year, could result in up to 4 fewer pounds.
Psychologically, having a good sense of humor–and applying it by laughing–may permit us to have a better perspective on things by seeing situations in a “more realistic and less threatening light.” Physically, laughter can put a damper on the production of stress hormones—cortisol and epinephrine—as well as trigger the release of endorphins. Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers and can boost our mood. And, too, it has been shown that a good LOL or ROTFL — texting slang for “laugh out loud” or “rolling on the floor laughing” — can relax our muscles for up to 45 minutes after.
The American Heart Association states that laughter can help our hearts. Research shows that by decreasing stress hormones, we can see a decrease in blood pressure as well as artery inflammation and bad cholesterol levels. Elevated blood pressure forces our heart to work harder in order to generate the force needed to pump against the increased resistance. And inflammation and high cholesterol contribute to the development of fatty plaques that decrease blood flow to the heart, or, even, complete blockage that can cause a heart attack.
Enhances our ability to fight off germs
Laughter increases the production of antibodies–proteins that surveillance for foreign invaders—as well as a number of other immune system cells. And, in doing so, we are strengthening our body’s defenses against germs. Additionally, it is a well-known fact that stress weakens our immune system. And because laughing alleviates our body’s stress response, it can help dampen its ill-effects.
A natural pain-killer
The iconic Charlie Chaplin stated: “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” Although Mr. Chaplin probably meant this figuratively, laughter can literally relieve pain by stimulating our bodies to produce endorphins — natural painkillers. Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders. The best part: You do not need a prescription and there are no known side-effects.
What are some steps I can take to laugh more?
First, make a commitment to laugh more.
- We can move towards laughter by surrounding ourselves with those who laugh and return the favor by making them laugh. And, too, surround ourselves with children and pets. On average, children laugh 300 times a day! And we know that laughter is contagious.
- Practice laughing by beginning with a smile and then enact a laugh. Although it may feel contrived at first, with practice, it will likely become spontaneous.
- Look for the humor in a bad situation, especially with situations that are beyond our control.
- Espouse silliness when appropriate
- Know when not to laugh. Laughter at the expense of others or in hurtful situations is inappropriate.
One of the best descriptions I found with respect to laughter, is: Laughter is a physical expression of pleasant emotions among human beings. It is preceded by what one sees, hears or feels. When shared, it serves to connect people and increases intimacy and is a good anti-stress medicine.
LOL or lol, is an acronym for Laugh(ing) Out Loud or Lots of Laughs – and has become a very popular element of internet communications and texting in expressing great amusement in a chat. As well, according to research, the smiling and “tears of joy” laughing emoji faces are tops in digital communications. Their usage is so widespread and so common, that we now actually have data that demonstrates that the use and placement of emojis carries an emotional weight which impacts our perception of the messages that frame these icons (understanding the mental states of others is crucial to communication). And yes, in today’s busy world we may be utilizing =D, ☺, and LOL’s at every turn, but let’s lean in to the hilarious and enjoy the good, hearty health benefits of laughter.
You’ll be glad you do – as it wipes away stress, decreases blood pressure, burns calories, alleviates pain, connects us to others, reinvigorates us with hope, helps ward off germs … (the list goes on) – and feels soooo good. LOL for better health, connection and joy!!
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.