Laughter: Is it really the best medicine?

You can’t laugh away your troubles, but you can feel better.

What is the most beautiful sound in the world? You could name a lot of contenders. The cry of a healthy new baby. A choir singing the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s “Messiah.” The purring sound of a finely tuned high-performance sports car. But I would submit that the most beautiful sound is laughter.

One of the things I remember most about the early days of dating my wife is how much we laughed. Even today, after 37 years of married life, one of the things I love most about my wife is that she makes me laugh. In turn, I love to hear her laugh. It has been a treasured hallmark of our relationship. Now that I am a grandfather, one of the most joyous sounds is the unrestrained, infectious laughter of my young granddaughters at play.

It is said that laughter is the best medicine. I don’t know how true this is but I certainly believe the point can be argued. There are few things in life as enjoyable as a good, hearty laugh. I mean the kind where you can’t catch your breath, tears are running down your face, and you are getting muscle cramps in your abdomen. Something about that just leaves you feeling good all over.

There is much to love about laughter. It is universal. People in every culture, on every continent, and through all recorded history, laugh. Laughter is infectious. You simply cannot be around someone who is laughing without feeling an irresistible desire to laugh yourself. Laughter deflects nervousness and relieves tension. It communicates playful intent. It serves to bond us together. It simply isn’t possible to stay angry with someone when you are laughing together. Laughter is literally programmed into our DNA. We do not have to be taught to laugh; we do it spontaneously, starting as early as 3½ months of age.

What it is that prompts us to laugh is not clear. It is not as simple as hearing a funny joke—what makes a joke funny is a whole other mystery in itself—or seeing someone slip on a banana peel. A few studies were done to examine situations in which individuals laugh and some are surprisingly lacking in obvious humor: a greeting, an observation, a seemingly non-humorous statement. You can’t make yourself laugh. Forced laughter sounds like just that—forced; it is nothing like spontaneous laughter and does not produce any of the benefits of spontaneous laughter.

One cannot help but believe that laughter has to be good for us, but is there objective evidence of health benefits? Studies on laughter are few but some show interesting results. In one study of 19 individuals with diabetes, they were fed a meal and then made to sit through a tedious lecture. The next day, they ate the same meal and watched a comedy. Blood-sugar levels were checked and it was found that their blood-sugar levels were better controlled when the group laughed.

People tense up when watching a drama but relax when watching a comedy. Relaxation has measurable effects in improving blood flow to tissues. Laughing raises one’s heart rate. One researcher found that it took 10 minutes on a rowing machine to raise heart rate as much as one minute of hearty laughter. Ten to 15 minutes of laughing will burn about 50 calories.

We know that stress is a ubiquitous modern-day killer because of its detrimental effect on our immune system. Some researchers suggest that, by helping reduce stress, laughter might help boost our immune system. Studies even suggested a true physiological response to laughter, possibly by the release of endorphins or other chemicals in our brains that can have salutary effects in other parts of the body. There even are indications that the lining of our blood vessels benefit from laughter, thus potentially lowering the risk of heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States today.

Admittedly, the studies on the health benefits of laughter have not been conclusive. Some of the benefits may be ascribed to factors other than laughter alone, such as stronger social connections in those who laugh a lot. Even so, the role of laughter in boosting our quality of life is unquestioned. And, besides, who doesn’t want to laugh more? One of the prescriptions for staying healthy has been to exercise regularly. Perhaps we need to add to this the recommendation that we try to laugh about something every day. Whether it benefits us medically or not, it sure will make life more fun. I may have to order some preprinted prescription pads that simply read, “Laughter, do this at least once a day.”

In closing, a horse walks into a bar and sits down. The bartender walks over and says, “Why the long face?” See? Didn’t that feel good?

About the writer

Dr. Richard T. Bosshardt graduated in 1978 from the University of Miami School of Medicine. In 1989, he founded Bosshardt & Marzek Plastic Surgery Associates, Lake County’s first practice to provide full-time cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery services.

About the author

Rick Bosshardt, M.D., FACS

Richard Bosshardt, M.D., graduated from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1978. He founded Bosshardt & Marzek Plastic Surgery Associates, Lake County’s first practice to provide full-time cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery services, in 1989.

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