Seriously funny!

The link between humour & health

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2013

When was the last time you had a really good belly laugh?

Recall how good it felt and how it seemed to melt all your tensions away. If you can't remember when, maybe it's time to tap into your "funny."

Laughter and humour have been linked to good health and well-being for a number of decades. Back in 1979, Norman Cousins, a political journalist and author, published a paper called Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient, in which he shared his unique personal recovery from a devastating condition.

Cousins was being treated by medical doctors although they were not able to provide an optimistic prognosis. With the approval, but skepticism, of his medical team, he checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room, and dealt with his condition through a variety of unusual methods including vitamins and large doses of humour by watching comedy films. He eventually overcame his symptoms and his story sparked growing interest in the role of laughter and humour in healing.

There is a widely held belief that humour and behaviours related to humour, such as laughing, are good for our health. There are many variables that influence scientific studies on humour so scientists have had difficulty proving that laughing has a direct relationship to improved health. Even so, there are some good reasons to believe that humour and laughter do positively affect our well-being.

There are a number of potential ways in which humour can boost our overall health. The first of these effects is the immediate physical response and feeling we get when we break out into laughter. Everyone knows that it feels good to laugh. Laughter does increase heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption, which leads to healthy function of blood vessels and contributes to healthy heart function. That great feeling we get when we laugh is related to the increase in muscle relaxation, which may also decrease pain and tension. With a really big laugh, these effects combine to have a healthy effect on our organs, improving circulation and function.

All of these effects on our body are good for our physical health. Because laughing relaxes us physically, it temporarily reduces stress hormones in our body. This is a good thing since too much stress hormone, such as cortisol, or prolonged exposure to high levels of it can counteract good health and decrease our immune responses.

Second, laughter is good for our emotional and psychological well-being. It's no secret that laughing improves our mood by decreasing stress, anxiety and sadness. Even when we are dealing with a very serious issue, it is okay to find some humour in it and allow yourself that break. Some of us are more easily amused and are considered to have a great sense of humour. These people have a natural trait or light-hearted personality that seems to pick up on the good side of life. They are quick to enjoy the little things in life and can laugh about them. Even though we may not all be comedians, most of us can change our thinking just a little to be more open to the funny side of life. Humour is an easy way to brighten our mood and decrease stress.

We've all heard the saying that "misery loves company" and it is true that those of us who are negative thinkers tend to attract other negative thinkers. Positive and optimistic people feel dragged down by negative thinkers, and generally will avoid being surrounded by those people who always see the glass half empty.

These are the social benefits of humour and laughter. One of the greatest joys in life is sharing a great laugh with others, and, yes, laughter is somewhat contagious.

It is often said that children laugh many more times than adults do, despite the fact there is no research to back up that statement. Seeing things through a child's eyes, however, or spending time with children can inspire us to open our minds to the comical things in life. Children notice things in their everyday world and are often amused by it because it is their first encounter with that situation.

As adults, we tend to lose that sense of spontaneity and often don't find things as amusing as we once did as children.

To counteract this, allow yourself to be spontaneous once in a while and take advantage of the silly things around you. At the same time, try to reduce your exposure to negative events. Pay attention to what you are watching on television or what you are reading or viewing on the Internet. While it may be important to stay informed, look for a way to balance that negative stimulus with positive aspects as well.

With all the things that we know we could be doing to boost our health and well-being, laughing seems to be the easiest and most fun! Why not let yourself really enjoy your day by opening the door to all the positive moments, however small, and be open to sharing a laugh! Your body and mind will thank you, and so will the people around you!

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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