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By Contributing Editor for Health & Wellness Kathy Whelan

In his job as editor of a monthly magazine, my father chose the cartoons that appeared in each issue. I remember sitting on the couch in his office, poring over a stack of (mostly) hilarious submissions and laughing out loud. Little did I know that my health improved with each burst of laughter.

In fact, laughter, a physical expression of humor, has many physical health benefits, both short- and long-term. It immediately stimulates many organs, including the heart, lungs and muscles, and prompts the brain to release endorphins, which reduce pain. It decreases the secretion of stress hormones. By increasing circulation and soothing muscle tension, laughter reduces physical signs of stress, thereby helping prevent inflammatory reactions that can ultimately lead to a heart attack. It lowers glucose levels and blood pressure and protects against cancer by increasing natural killer cell activity. It has been connected to increased immunity and cognitive improvements in older adults.

In addition to these physical health benefits, laughter promotes our mental health. When we laugh, we relax, which makes us more resilient, better able to cope with difficulties. In a more relaxed state, we can see threatening situations from a different perspective, giving us some psychic distance from them. By prompting the release of serotonin, laughter helps improve our mood. When we laugh with others, we are better able to connect with them, which helps build mental wellness. Simply put, laughter makes us feel happier.

Despite all these benefits, both physical and mental, and the fact that laughter is natural and cost-free, it is often overlooked as a prescription for good health. This was not always the case. For centuries, humor and laughter were interwoven with health, but the shortage of supporting empirical evidence eventually led to their decline as therapies. Not until the 20th century did investigators examine the psychophysiological mechanisms of humor and re-assert the notion that it should be part of a holistic approach to health. Longtime Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins popularized the therapeutic benefits of laughter in his 1979 book, in which he claimed that self-induced bouts of laughter had extended his life after a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis as scary as its name. As the benefits of humor emerged, so did a new word – “gelotology” – coined by Stanford University’s William Fry to refer to the study of laughter and its effects on the body and mind.

Today the use of laughter in medical settings is being explored seriously (so to speak). “Clown therapy” helps hospitalized pediatric patients, “elder clowns” have helped seniors in residential settings, and some physicians are considering integrating humor into their practices.

We can easily bring humor and laughter into our lives. Watching funny movies or videos, reading funny books, hanging out with people who make us laugh, sharing jokes with friends and playing with pets and young children are simple ways to do this. 

Using our own sense of humor can be even more rewarding than laughing in response to someone else’s. Shifting our perspective on a stressful situation helps us build a coping skill that we can use whenever and wherever we need it. Even in the pandemic, with all its horrors, moments of lightness can be found. Before vaccination, I took to walking in deserted alleys instead of on busy sidewalks. I laughed when I realized I would rather see a rat than a human on my daily jaunts. Think you could never be funny? Stand-up comedian Andrew Tarvin disagrees; anyone, he says, can learn to be funnier, as he did, through practice.

Some scientists theorize that even forced laughter, as opposed to spontaneous laughter, has health benefits. “Laughter yoga,” in which self-induced (forced) laughter combines with yogic deep breathing to lead to spontaneous laughter, has gained popularity and is being studied for its therapeutic effects.

Humor needn’t be confined to our private lives. Bringing it into our work can be helpful to others as well as ourselves. My husband and I have a trust and estate lawyer who uses his playful sense of humor to lighten up the grim subject of what happens when we die. After a good laugh, we all feel more relaxed and focused.

It should be noted that humor has value only if it’s appropriate in its subject, its target and its timing. As long as it is, we should all consider opening our lives to more humor and laughter for the sake of our health and the health of everyone around us.

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach. She is now, in addition, a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including Thrive Global and The Boston Globe. Read more about Kathy and her practice at www.whelanwellness.com

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