From the 1960s, Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a crippling and potentially fatal collagen disease. In response, Cousins undertook a regime that included plenty of vitamin C and positive emotions – like daily belly laughs that caused watching TV shows such as The Three Stooges. To the surprise of many physicians, he made a full recovery, published a book about the experience (the bestselling Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, 1979) and in the process provided a wellspring of support for the notion that laughter makes for good medicine.
Now, several decades later, we’re still debating the question of whether humour could be a boon to our health as well as to our physical fitness. As basic as humor is, researchers still have much to learn about it – as do some comedians.
Miller was a researcher on a study reported at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions a few years back that linked laughter and an active sense of humour with heart health. Cardiologists at the health care centre found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh at certain situations than subjects the same age without heart disease.
The study compared both humour and anger and hostility levels of 300 subjects, half of whom had either suffered a heart attack or undergone bypass surgery, with the other half free of cardiovascular disease. The former were less likely to comprehend humour or use it to get out of uncomfortable situations, the investigators found. They were angrier and more hostile. Needless to say, some of that may be a reaction to their illness; you wouldn’t expect sick people to be as jolly as healthy folks. But 40 percent is a huge difference, more than you might attribute to that factor.
MORE FUNNY EVIDENCE
Another study provided further support for the notion of laughter as a beneficial mental and physical activity. UCLA researchers had 21 healthy kids put one hand in cold water while they watched funny videos. The result? The children who laughed were able to endure the pain of cold water longer than those who didn’t. Researchers also discovered that the laughing kids had reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress.
While this study was small, and there was no control group, it lends support to the healthiness of bliss. And given that we’ve seen no studies indicating any negative consequences of a snigger, chuckle or guffaw, it is tough to argue against the concept that a small amount of funny helps improve physical and psychological well-being.
Just as we integrate other heart-healthy activities into our daily lives, we might do the same with laughter, suggest Miller. “The ability to laugh – either naturally or as a learned behaviour – may have significant implications in societies where heart disease is still the No.1 killer,” he notes.
Humour will not replace exercise in the health equation, of course, but who would not sometimes prefer a episode of Friends to a gruelling cardio session? And now, humour is taken more seriously as a health factor than it was taken previously. Hundreds of academics belong to the International Society for Humour Studies.
Although the health benefits of laughter have yet to be demonstrated scientifically, laughter may help us beat stress, which contributes to heart problems, among other maladies. We may, after all, need a daily dose of laughter along with our workout and lean diets. So be sure to split at least a few times a day. It can’t hurt, and it might very well help. No joke.
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