When people say that laughter is the best medicine, they often mean that chuckling can help us to get through some tough moments. But laughter is gaining acclaim as a healthful force in and of itself—new studies are probing the particulars of how it works, and researchers are pushing for wider acceptance of mirth as medicine.
Laughter, we now know, perks up the brains of older people. In a recent presentation at an annual meeting of experimental biologists, Gurinder Bains, a doctor and researcher at Loma Linda University, presented results of a study he ran with two groups of elderly volunteers. One was a healthy group of adults, the other a group with diabetes. Both were shown 20 minutes of a funny video—they had a choice between watching America’s Funniest Home Videos or Red Skelton (a sketch comedy artist popular in the 1960s). “We had to think of something age-appropriate,” Bains says. “If I gave them Seinfeld, they probably wouldn’t laugh.”
Thirty seniors aged 65-72 were given a common assessment of cognition and memory before and after the video, and their cortisol levels were gathered late last year. The results were compared to those of a third group of similarly aged elderly individuals—a control—who were not exposed to any of the knee-slapping humor.
Berk has found that laughter and the anticipation of laughter can reduce stress hormones significantly—yes, just expecting to laugh is enough to trigger a response.
Bains’ research showed a significant decrease in cortisol in the groups that watched the funny videos. The individuals in those groups increased their scores on the memory test taken after watching the videos by 43.6 percent (the control group, which sat quietly for 20 minutes, also increased their scores over the first text, but only by 20.3 percent). Linking the results to the amount of the steroid hormone in the body, Bains points out that chronic elevated cortisol levels from stress affects the hippocampus, which eventually leads to impairments on learning and memory.
In the future, Bains hopes to study memory and learning in students who use 20-minute humor breaks instead of traditional study breaks. He believes so much in the work that he’s doing, that Bains even takes some of his own findings to heart, watching 20 to 30 minutes of stand-up comedy on YouTube every day. “You have to find something that makes you laugh,” he says. “Having a community and being more social leads to the big picture of improving your life.”
Bains is, in many ways, building on the work of his former teacher, Lee Berk, who has studied laughter for decades. Berk got his start by researching the impact of exercise on the brain and immune system, an area of interest that was considered heretical to doctors and researchers in the 1980s “because those things were always taught as silos.” One day, he got a call from Norman Cousins, a writer and editor of The Sunday Review who had contracted a debilitating autoimmune disease. Looking into the impacts of stress on the body, Cousins had come up with what he thought was a way to improve his health through laughter and contacted Berk to ask how much it would cost to research the subject.
With Cousins’ investment of $25,000, Berk joined a group of researchers looking into the gap between brain studies, immunology, and physiology, another unconventional idea. At the time, specialists “would rather use each others’ toothbrushes than use each others’ languages,” a colleague told Berk.
Berk has found that laughter and the anticipation of laughter can reduce stress hormones significantly—yes, just expecting to laugh is enough to trigger a response. In a study of heart patients, only eight percent of a group prescribed 30 minutes of laughter per day suffered a second heart attack, while 40 percent of a control group did. Berk’s studies have also found that a certain kind of laughter—mirthful laughter, as opposed to nervous or embarrassed laughter, Berk says—promotes good cholesterol and could even be used to treat appetite loss in older patients.
Laughter, of course, and especially mirthful laughter, is closely related to happiness—or a physical expression thereof—which is also being studied closely. A 2011 British study that followed 3,800 people aged 52-79, for instance, found that just 3.6 percent of people who rated themselves in the highest third of happiness died during the course of the five-year study, compared to 7.4 percent of the people in the least happy group. That drop in mortality held even after researchers accounted for chronic health problems, depression, and financial security.
“So is happiness the factor in lowering morbidity in individuals?” Berk asks. “The answer is yeah. Happiness is a dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. Happiness is optimal immune system responsivity.”
After seeing the results of his work, Berk says that he advises people to get serious about laughter. “One should be active and not passive in the process of one’s own wellness,” he says. “It isn’t a static state, it’s something you have control over.”