Question of the Week

April 30, 2008


Many people don't really think of laughter as a health issue. While it may be difficult to find things to laugh about when life is stressful or a person is facing a difficult situation, finding humor at those times can be beneficial to one's mental health.

"Laughter and humor are two powerful tools, helping people cope and get through threatening situations. Looking at life's situations with a sense of humor and laughter provides perspective and helps keep things in balance when life seems unfair. Humor and laughter are a source of power, healing, and survival. We often forget this when caught up in the troubles and trauma of life. Bill Cosby says, 'If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.' ... While we are working at surviving, laughter can help us to maintain our perspective. ... There are many things in life that we have no control over and can't change. As long as we have a sense of humor, however, we can do something -- such as minimize the hold that upsets have over us. Humor has the power to turn any situation around. ... A lot of the suffering and troubles we experience are not a result of our difficulties, but how we view them. ... Using humor in difficult times can be one of the smartest ways of coping with them, easing our worries, and getting on with life."

When things are at their worst, it is often difficult to find humor in anything. It may seem inappropriate to laugh, or it may seem as though there is nothing to laugh about. Taking time to laugh with a friend, even when things seem to be at their worst, can not only improve a person's ability to cope with a difficult situation, but it can also help build stronger relationships -- those relationships can then be there to help people through even more stressful times in the future.

"[O]f all the elements that contribute to the warm atmosphere of a good relationship, there is one that seldom gets translated into advice or even therapy, yet is something that everyone desires and most people would like more of: Laughter. ... Laughter establishes--or restores--a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, who literally take pleasure in the company of each other. For if there's one thing Dr. Provine found it's that speakers laugh even more than their listeners. Of course levity can defuse anger and anxiety, and in so doing it can pave the path to intimacy. Most of what makes people laugh is not thigh-slapper stuff but conversational comments. 'Laughter is not primarily about humor,' says Dr. Provine, 'but about social relationships.'"

While it may seem logical that laughter eases stress and is good for a person's mental health, laughter has physical health benefits, as well.

"[R]esearchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have shown for the first time that laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels. Laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow.... The endothelium has a powerful effect on blood vessel tone and regulates blood flow, adjusts coagulation and blood thickening, and secretes chemicals and other substances in response to wounds, infections or irritation. It also plays an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease. 'The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so, given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease... At the very least, laughter offsets the impact of mental stress, which is harmful to the endothelium.'"

There is a connection between laughter and healthy relationships. There is a connection between laughter and healthy blood vessels. There is a relationship between laughter and a healthy heart.

"'We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.' [Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine] says it may be possible to incorporate laughter into our daily activities, just as we do with other heart-healthy activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. 'We could perhaps read something humorous or watch a funny video and try to find ways to take ourselves less seriously,' Miller says. 'The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day.'"

Laughter can be a wonderful addition to a healthy lifestyle, but that is not to say that it should replace other heart healthy choices.

"We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues. People who believe in the benefits of laughter say it can be like a mild workout -- and may offer some of the same advantages as a workout.... 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 expended in laughing. It turned out that 10-15 minutes of laughter burned 50 calories. While the results are intriguing, don't be too hasty in ditching that treadmill. One piece of chocolate has about 50 calories; at the rate of 50 calories per hour, losing one pound would require about 12 hours of concentrated laughter!"

Questions of the Week:
What role can laughter play in a healthy lifestyle? How can you use laughter to help someone through a difficult time without your behavior appearing inappropriate? How are the mental and physical benefits of laughter related to each other? In what ways are they not related? What can you do to help your friends and family members understand the health benefits of laughter? How can you, your peers, and your family members incorporate a healthy dose of laughter into your daily lives?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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