Laughter and Health
By John Ryan
When thinking about alternative medicine, most people picture plants, crystals, needles, maybe some bugs and leeches, but few realize that jokes, humor and comedy are truly medicines, in their own right. It has long been established that optimists live longer than pessimists, but now there is some hard evidence that people with a better sense of humor also have longer and healthier lives. Your "stay healthy" plan should include a joke and a 20-minute comedy show, to go with the broccoli and carrots.
There are now various associations and physicians specialized in the so-called therapeutic humor, who are still investigating the roles of laughter in our lives. Perhaps the most obvious of these roles is that related to the social life - jokes often allow people to connect and to bond, and sharing a good laughter is a good method to integrate in a team, to get along with the coworkers, neighbors and so on. This function is vital from the point of view of mental health, since it reduces loneliness and, with it, depression and other problems associated with it. You don't have to be trained in stand-up comedy in order to say something funny, sometimes all you need is a change of perspective or the courage to make fun at your own expense.
Humor is an invaluable asset in crisis situations, when it helps us calm down and reduce the levels of stress (and all the negative effects stress has on health). It is often considered that, among patients with very severe diseases, those with an upbeat approach, who are capable of making jokes about their situations, have the best chances to defeat the illness. So far, there have been no scientific studies to prove this, but the patients themselves report feeling better after joining an activity with humorous potential, even if it's just watching a comedy show together with some friends or with other patients.
Recent researches suggest that laughter influences more than our mental framework, it actually has a positive effect on the physical aspect as well. It has been widely accepted, for some time, that laughter increases the pain resistance level, but the theory is still not proven. In fact, very few studies have yet been made about the relation between comedy and health, but those existing seem to indicate that a good joke may lower the blood pressure, improve memory and cognitive functions and boost the immune system. Moreover, these results are not short-term only: it seems that a good sense of humor may protect you against heart diseases and alter your biochemical state to a level where the organism produces more antibodies. The lack of research in the field is due to the fact that people have always assumed that laughter is good for your health (along with an apple a day and a breath of fresh air), but little has been done to analyze this in depth.
There is also a "bad" humor (same as there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol). This category includes the approach that makes people feel miserable about themselves, or angry, upset and vengeful, as well as the skeptic and cynic attitude, which is often the front for deep depression and indifference. Jokes directed at other people are also "bad" humor, along with ethnic, racial and sexist jokes, which are born out of frustration, not out of optimism and cheerfulness. Also, people who often make fun of themselves hide a low self esteem, which is only worsened with every funny joke they invent (there is a good reason why clowns and successful comedy actors are often perceived as sad and depressed in their real lives).
If you decide to use laughter as a therapeutic method, the first obvious issue is that there are no harmful side effects, and you've got nothing to lose. The second issue is that you can actually improve your sense of humor in time, same as any other skill or ability, by constant training and exposure to jokes and comedy. Next time you go to the movies, buy a ticket for a comedy, no matter how dumb the poster looks. When you read the paper, don't forget to check out their daily cartoon too. Spend ten minutes every day reading jokes, and, when you find some you like, share them with your friends. (And when your boss catches you reading jokes instead of working, tell him it's just therapy, he can't stop your from taking your medication at work, right?)
Last but not least, try to find the funny side of the small things that happen every day around you - there is always something absurd or plain stupid going on right near you, which may provide five minutes of good laugher, which, in turn, may unblock some arteries and keep the heart attack far away.