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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Health and Humor

Like most of you, I’ve been hearing some very funny jokes about the coronavirus. However, last time I checked, there was nothing humorous whatsoever about a lethal pandemic that has changed our daily lives so completely. Isn’t it interesting how we cope with difficulties and stress during these surreal times? It turns out that jokes, gallows humor, and just laughter in general can be very healing - and a legitimate way of dealing with stress, alleviating depression, and improving our general health.

A good sense of humor is certainly not a cure-all, but a steady flow of preliminary scientific data suggests positive benefits. Our laughter not only helps us, but like the coronavirus, can be infectious.

A good laugh lightens the load mentally and also induces physical changes. It increases oxygen intake, thereby stimulating the heart, lungs and muscles. Laughter fires up and then cools down the stress response, and increases and then deceases the heart rate and blood pressure. It stimulates circulation and aids in muscle relaxation, which can help ease some of the physical symptoms of stress. It increases the release of endorphins, which make us feel better by binding to our opioid receptors. The more opioid receptors one’s brain has, the more powerful the effect. Highly addictive opioid drugs, like heroin, also bind to these receptors, suggesting that laughter induces a euphoria that is not unlike a narcotic. By the same mechanism, it reduces pain as well. Clearly, this way is safer!

Laughing activates the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the same brain chemical affected by the most common types of antidepressants. It’s not clear from the research how long this mood-improving effect lasts, but the burst of brain activity triggered by laughing is effective, at least for short periods.

Laughter can protect the heart. Research has shown that laughter may act as an anti-inflammatory, protecting blood vessels and heart muscles from the damaging effects of cardiovascular disease. The mechanism of this is unclear, but the body’s stress response is indeed directly linked to increased inflammation.

Laughter forms social bonds. When a group laughs together, it spreads the endorphin release and promotes a sense of togetherness and safety. Each person in a social group who laughs can transmit those feelings. This may explain why some will genuinely laugh even if they’re not quite certain what everyone else is laughing about. In essence, laughter helps make difficult situations easier; acting as a natural icebreaker and as a way to connect with others.

Laughter can be a key to relationship success. It’s interesting that women tend to laugh more than men, although men appear to instigate laughter the most. Women rate a sense of humor as a top three trait for a potential mate, and men rate a woman who laughs higher than women who don’t.

Most of us can find a way to laugh about the situations we find ourselves in. Spend time with friends who make you laugh. Share stories and jokes. While the research on the benefits of laughter to our health may be limited, it is clear that feeling a bit more positive doesn’t hurt. There is more than enough news out there to bring us all down. Let’s work on daily laughter, and help one another to feel a little bit better as we emerge from these challenging times.

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