It appears that having a good sense of humour is not just a major asset for enjoying life, it can also keep us healthy. Humour is well known as an excellent coping mechanism for stress and can compensate for the negative biochemical effects caused by the demon fight or flight hormones. As long ago as the first century, it was being noted that people with a 'melancholic' nature tended to develop more illnesses than those with a happier nature. It is not just a case of being positive and always seeing the glass as half full, things also need to be funny and make you laugh.
So having a sense of humour does appears to have a protective effect but does laughter work as a therapy?
There has been lot of talk about the healing power of laughter and related therapies such as laughter yoga and giggle therapy are becoming more and more popular. But how strong is the evidence?
Patient QI read through the recent literature on humour and healing and we found many studies that indicate there is great potential for the therapy to help patients with a variety of health problems. Laughter has been shown to reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and stress. Cardiovascular benefits include reduced tension, blood pressure and risk of heart attack. Laughter improves lung function and reduces blood glucose concentrations. The most documented studies are in the cancer and mental health categories. Laughter therapy has definitely shown benefit as a supportive treatment to cancer patients undergoing conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. Recently the UK advised that practitioners should be aware of and treat the high levels of depression that occur in patients diagnosed with cancer. Laughter therapy is one of the therapies that should be used in response to this as it has proven itself a valuable therapy for anxiety and depression.
Humour acts through several mechanisms. Laughter stimulates the heart and blood circulation which leads to increased heart rate, depth of respiration and intake of oxygen and this is then followed by a relaxed period. In a small scientific study humour reduced anxiety levels in a group of volunteers waiting for a shock treatment. Studies in Psychoneuroimmunology have shown that humour can stimulate the activity of some groups of immune cells, in particular Natural Killer cell activity and salivary antibody levels.
What if it isn't funny?
It appears that for the therapy to work, it doesn't have to be funny. Smart as our bodies are, they can't tell the difference between spontaneous laughter as a response to some external trigger such as a good joke, and self induced laughter. So both are beneficial.
Are there any risks?
It appears that there are and it is no laughing matter. A paper published in the British Medical Journal investigated the beneficial and harmful effects of laughter. Harmful effects included passing out, rupture of the oesophagus, giving yourself a hernia, asthma attack or wetting yourself. More serious effects included jaw dislocation and cardiac rupture.
If you're finding it difficult to make yourself laugh, then find your self an infectious friend. We've all heard about the infectious laugh and there are even annual competitions to find the best laugh in the world. So if you want to keep healthy, add a few minutes laughter therapy into your day.
Our favourite laugh is the 2008 Comic Relief giggle ball.
Have a fun weekend!