Mental health is requisite for anyone’s general health and well-being, and as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, our team at EternalCore.org are exploring how individuals can get stronger with the Fitness #4Mind4Body Campaign. Each week we explore how some aspect of life’s journey is affected by spirituality and religion, humor (and laughter), animal companionship, recreation, and work-life balance and the roles they play in improving mental health. This week we will explore the role of humor in mental health.
Twenty years ago, Zand, Spreen and Lavalle, declared that “new research shows that laughter really is good medicine.” Medical professionals called it folklore and went after laughing in study after study. Now, with twenty years of research, we have plenty of studies suggesting they were right.
Laughing as Therapy
MQ Mental Health warns, “there are connections between stress and mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Clearly, stress plays a role in mental health and just last month, the Mayo Clinic reported that “Whether you’re guffawing at a sitcom on TV or quietly giggling at a newspaper cartoon, laughing does you good. Laughter is a great form of stress relief, and that’s no joke.”
The Mayo Clinic cites “three short short-term benefits including not just lightening your mental load, but it changes things in your body physically.” First, laughing increases your oxygen intake, it “stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.” Next, it helps relieve stress responses buy first increasing and then decreasing “your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.” Finally, a good laugh can “stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.”
They also extol the long-term effect of laugher, suggesting that will it actually boost your immune system; “positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.” For some it may ease pain “by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.” It further helps you “cope with difficult situations” and “connect with other people.” Of course, they say laughing can improve your mood; “many people experience depression, sometimes due to chronic illnesses. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier.”
In a study released in the Journal of Korean Nursing, Mi Youn Cha and Hae Sook Hong showed how laughter therapy impacts serotonin levels, an effect similar to the use of antidepressants. The neurotransmitter serotonin is released when someone is laughing. This is the same brain chemical most affected by common types of antidepressants. Their research shows that laughter therapy can help lessen depression and provide important grounds for depression control.
Laughter and the Aging Brain
Septemeber 2016, Georgia State University (GSU) delivered a surprising report “Evaluation of a Laughter-based Exercise Program on Health and Self-efficacy for Exercise.” Their conclusions claim that laughing is still one of the best medicines, at least for older folks. The purpose of the study was to help older adults get more exercise and that associating laughter with exercise could make it a regular habit. But they also were pleased with just what laughing can do for the soul. They wrote: “laughter interventions have been shown to positively impact mental health outcomes in older adults (Ko & Youn, 2011, Shahidi et al., 2011). In our study, we observed statistically significant increases in mental health…”
Part of their program used LaughActive with their group exercise programs. During moderately intensive exercise “stimulated laughter” was mixed into “strength, balance and flexibility program” for these older adults. Stimulated laughter often gets out of control and is followed by the real thing. “Participants laugh abundantly and achieve health benefits of laughter without requiring a sense of humor or even a reason to laugh – and get a full workout at the same time.”
Christopher Bergland, writing for Psychology Today stated: “The benefits of laughter are believed to be rooted in our nervous system. …Any type of laughter stimulates diaphragmatic breathing, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and triggers the ‘tend-and-befriend’ response linked to healthy tone in your vagus nerve… Adding laughter to an exercise program creates positive associations on a psychological and neurobiological level. This double whammy triggers an upward spiral in your mind and body that is linked to positive emotions that will make you want to exercise regularly, ” which in fact is part of fitness #4Mind4Body, our focus this month.
Bergland says that “incorporating voluntary laughter into a physical activity regimen focused on strength, balance, and flexibility improved older adults’ mental health.”
Other Benefits of Laughing
Positive Psychology Program reported on two studies that showed that laughter can protect your heart. “In a study in The American Journal of Cardiology, subjects were shown a comedy … [where] results suggest that mirthful laughter elicited by comic movies induces beneficial impact on vascular function.” In Japan, researchers “evaluated data from 20,934 men and women aged 65 or above. They were interested in the impact of laughing on heart disease, after controlling for a number of medical factors …Results indicated that individuals who ‘never or almost never laughed’ had a 21% higher risk of heart disease than those who laughed daily (Hayashi, et. al., 2016). Additionally, there was a 60% higher rate of stroke in those who rarely laugh over regular laughers.” These and other studies seem to suggest that laughter lessens “stress response, which is directly linked to increased inflammation. Regular, hearty laughter should probably be part of every heart disease prevention program.”
Another recent study reported in JNeurosci.org suggests that laughing along with other people is a potent endorphin releaser. These are our bodies’ own “homegrown feel-good chemicals,” writes David DiSalvo in Forbes. He continues, “laughter induces euphoria, not unlike a narcotic (minus the obvious drawbacks).”
DiSalvo also explains how laughter contagiously forms social bonds. When a group of people starts to laugh together, they spread” endorphins between themselves which “promotes a sense of togetherness and safety. Each brain in a social unit is a transmitter of those feelings, which triggers the feel-goods in other brains via laughter. It’s like a game of endorphin dominoes. That’s why when someone starts laughing, others will laugh even if they’re not sure what everyone is laughing about.”
Seven German and British researchers showed how laughter fosters brain connectivity. Their study found differences between “joyous laughter versus taunting laughter versus tickling laughter, each of which activates connections between different brain regions.” DiSalvo explained, “What this all amounts to is that laughter fosters rigorous brain-region connectivity that kicks in when we hear a laugh, as our brains work to decipher what sort of communication is coming through.”
Laura E. Kurtz and Sara B. Algoe, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, say that laughter is central to relationships. Their research showed “that women laughed about 126% more than their male counterparts, while men seem to instigate laughter the most—and there’s an interesting application of those results to how relationships form and are maintained. Women typically rate a sense of humor as a top-three trait for a potential mate. Men tend to rate women who laugh a lot (i.e. laugh at their jokes) higher than those who don’t. It’s no surprise, then, that couples who laugh together report having higher-quality relationships. Laughter is a non-negotiable for all involved.”
Remember, laughter is not a cure-all, just part of Fitness #4Mind4Body. By looking at your overall health daily — both physically and mentally — you can go a long way in ensuring fitness, and laughter is clearly part of that.