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Feeling rundown? Try to laugh more. Some researchers think that laughter may be the best medicine, helping you feel better and putting spring back on your pace.
“I believe that if people get more laughter in their lives, they are better off,” said Steve Wilson, MA, CSP, a psychologist and laugh therapist. "They can also be healthy."
But researchers are not sure if this is actually the act of laughter that makes people feel. A good mood, a positive attitude, and the support of friends and family can also play a role.
"Specific research into the potential health benefits of laughter has not been done," said Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation .
But while we do not know if people really enjoy laughing, it certainly does not hurt.
Laughing Therapy: What Happens When We Laugh?
We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch the muscles all over the face and body, lower the pressure and blood pressure, and breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues.
People who believe in the benefits of laughter say that it can be like a gentle workout - and may offer some of the same benefits as an exercise.
“The effects of laughter and exercise are similar,” Wilson said. "Combining laughter and movement, like waving your arms, is a great way to boost your heart rate."
A pioneer in laughter research, William Fry, claims it took ten minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach this level after just one minute of happy laughter.
And laughter appears to burn calories, too. Maciej Buchowski, a researcher from Vanderbilt University, conducted a small study in which he measured the amount of calories spent on laughter. It turned out that 10-15 minutes of laughter burned 50 calories.
While the results are intriguing, do not be too hasty in digging the treadmill. A piece of chocolate has about 50 calories; at the rate of 50 calories per hour, losing a pound will require about 12 hours of concentrated laughter!
Effects of Body Laughter
Over the past few decades, researchers have studied the effects of laughter on the body and have developed some potentially interesting information on how it affects us:
Blood flow. Researchers at the University of Maryland have studied the effects on blood vessels when people are portrayed in either comedy or drama. After the screening, the blood vessels of the comedy-watching group behave normally - rapidly expanding and contracting. But the blood vessels in people watching the drama are tense, restricting blood flow.
Normal response. Increased stress is associated with a reduced immune system response, Provine says. Some studies have shown that the ability to use humor can increase the level of antibodies that affect infection in the body and boost the levels of immune cells, as well.
Blood sugar levels. A study of 19 people with diabetes looked at the effects of laughter on blood sugar levels. After dinner, the group attended a tiring interview. The next day, the group ate the same food and then watched a comedy. After the comedy, the group had lower blood sugar levels than they did after the interview.
Relaxation and sleep. The focus on the benefits of laughter really started with the memoir of Norman Cousin, Anatomy of a Disease. Cousins diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful condition of the spine, found that a diet of comedies, such as movies and episodes of the Marx Brothers Candid Camera, helped him become more great. He said that ten minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of free sleep.
The Evidence: Is Laughter the Best Drug?
But things are surprising when researchers try to sort out the full effects of laughter on our minds and bodies. Is laughter really for you? Can it really boost your energy? Not everyone is convinced.
"I don't mean that sounds like a curmudgeon," Provine said, "but the evidence that laughter has health benefits is otherwise best."
He says most laughter studies are small and not well conducted. He also says that so many researchers have a clear bias: they go to the study wanting to prove that laughter has benefits.
One of the biggest problems with laughter research is that it is very difficult to determine the cause and effect.
For example, one study may show that people who laugh more are more likely to get sick. But it may be because healthy people have more laughter. Or researchers may find that, among a group of people with the same disease, people who laugh more are more energetic. But that may be because people who laugh more have a personality that allows them to cope better.
So it is very difficult to say whether laughter is really an agent of change, or just a sign of a person’s condition.
It Laughs For The Quality Of Life
Laughter, Provine believes, is part of a bigger picture. "Laughter is social, so any health benefits can be really close to friends and family, and not the laughter itself."
In her own research, Provine has found that we are thirty times more likely to laugh when we are with other people than when we are alone. People who laugh a lot can have a strong connection with the people around them. That in itself can have health benefits.
Wilson agrees that there are limits to what we know about the benefits of laughter.
“Laughing more can make you healthier, but we don’t know,” he said. "I definitely don't want people to start laughing more to avoid death - because sooner or later, they fail."