Research explains how laughter is the best medicine

By Alistair Gardiner
Published April 30, 2021

Key Takeaways

Laughter is the best medicine—at least, that’s what they say. And, according to a growing body of research, that’s not just hyperbole. From lowering blood pressure to alleviating stress, humor boasts some bonafide healing power.

As a physician, finding more humor in your life could benefit not only your health, but that of your patients, too. Plus, World Laughter Day is coming up on May 2. What better time to examine the health benefits of laughing and some tips on using humor in a clinical setting?

Read on to learn what health experts and studies say about the value of a regular chuckle. 

The health benefits of laughing 

Crack up. Giggle. Cackle. Guffaw. Chortle. Whatever you want to call it, laughter offers both short- and long-term health benefits, according to the Mayo Clinic. Having a laugh induces immediate physical changes, all of which result in heightened feelings of well-being.

When you laugh, you increase your intake of oxygen-rich air. This stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and prompts the release of endorphins in your brain. Laughing activates and then relieves your body’s stress response, and also increases and then lowers your heart rate and blood pressure—all adding up to a calmer feeling. In addition, a good chuckle aids muscle relaxation and can stimulate circulation, both of which can help relieve stress.

As for long-term effects, regular bouts of laughter can improve your immune system, according to medical experts. “When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol,” said Edward Creagan, MD, in an article in The Seattle Times.

Stressful situations result in a spike in this hormone, which then interferes with the area of the brain that regulates emotions. “When that happens, the immune system deteriorates and becomes washed in a sea of inflammation, which is a factor in heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Cortisol interferes with the body’s immune system, putting us at risk for these three groups of diseases,” he added.

Positive thoughts and funny experiences, on the other hand, result in the release of neuropeptides, which help fight stress, wrote the Mayo Clinic, adding that regular laughter can also relieve pain and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Laughter is also associated with living longer for other reasons, according to Dr. Creagan. Being funny or enjoying comedy is usually an attractive trait, and research indicates that social connectedness is a factor that contributes to longevity.

This link between laughing and longevity is also supported by some evidence. One study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, looked at the association between humor and survival in patients with all-cause mortality, and mortality due to cardiovascular diseases (CVD), infections, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Researchers studied a cohort of approximately 54,000 individuals over a 15-year period. 

They found that having a good sense of humor is positively associated with survival from CVD-related mortality in women and with infection-related mortality in individuals of any gender. Researchers concluded this was due to laughter’s effect as “a health-protecting cognitive coping resource.” They measured this factor by asking participants to estimate their ability to find a funny element in any given situation; those with higher scores on this question tended to live longer.

A more recent study, published in PLoS One, measured laughter’s ability to mediate day-to-day stress. Researchers used a cohort of 45 students, whose rate of laughter was monitored using an app over a 2-week period. Participants were required to fill out regular surveys, which included questions on the frequency/intensity of laughter, and details of any stressful events and stress symptoms experienced.

Researchers found that if a participant tended to laugh more frequently, they also tended to experience lower rates of stress symptoms—although the intensity level of laughter was found to have no significant effect. 

Using humor in a clinical setting

With all the evidence indicating that humor and laughter offer positive physical and psychological health benefits, it makes sense to employ them when interacting with patients. But not all of us are confident when it comes to cracking jokes—or knowing which are appropriate in a patient setting. For those looking to inject some humor into their bedside manner, an article published in the AMA Journal of Ethics outlined some helpful tips and strategies.

The article details some humor habits you can start incorporating into your day, which may help you develop a mindset attuned to lightening your mood. These include listening to comedy podcasts during your commute (as opposed to stressful news); writing down at least three funny things that happened to you at the end of each day; taking regular short breaks to read or watch funny content. These practices can help your brain learn how to quickly make humorous connections.

Some of this may even help improve your medical practice because certain comedic skills overlap with those required by a clinician. A key example is listening. “If you’re a clinician going through the motions, distant, and not listening, it’s very easy to miss opportunities for humor,” the AMA Journal of Ethics authors wrote.

In other words, you must be present and engaged in order to spot something funny. Your patient may even line up a joke themselves—if you pick up on it, you know you’re giving a patient your full attention.

You might also want to create a positive, lighthearted environment in the exam area, which lends itself to humor. Adding funny reading materials or hanging comedic posters or pictures that patients can see while they are waiting can help with this. Of course, humor isn’t always appropriate and sometimes a patient may not be in the right state of mind for humor. It’s critically important to judge each situation as it comes, and know the kinds of jokes to avoid making, notes the Mayo Clinic. 

If you do find a patient who appears receptive to humor, you should always start by making fun of yourself and your own experiences, which can be a good way to build a trusting relationship. Stay positive and inclusive with your jokes and stick to comedic techniques like exaggeration and other harmless areas of humor.

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