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Is Laughter the Best Medicine? These Clowns Say Absolutely!
Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize you need a big dose of laughter. My aha moment came with flashing red lights: a breast cancer diagnosis late last year. What I learned during my treatment and the six months since is that laughter is strong medicine — and an absolute must for my health and happiness.
The science of laughter, called gafology — just kidding, it’s gelotology — has revealed just how important it is to laugh regularly.
Join your clown friends and me on a deep dive into a topic to treasure and spread around: Laughter.
We’ll cover 4 ways laughter really is the best medicine, and also invite you to take our laughter challenge!
First, let’s reflect on your laugh-life.
Is Laughter the Best Medicine for You?
Where does laughter enter your life, and where does it run smack into a glass door before reaching you?
Can you laugh anytime you want to shift your perspective or mindset?
This isn’t about instituting happy thoughts to avoid unpleasant ones. It’s about celebrating the power of laughter to enrich your life and add pep to your step.
The point, or the question rather, is this: How’s your laugh-life?
Here’s a fun quiz to help you check-in:
Now that you’ve gotten to know your laugh-life, let’s talk about how it benefits your health and relationships.
1. The mental benefits of laughter are no joke.
Do you ever crave laughter?
Maybe you itch to laugh at the end of a tense workday, or you search for a funny movie after a stressful week managing a family crisis. These are great examples of how you’re already using laughter to regulate your mind and body. Well played!
Let’s dig deeper and find out what’s happening before, during, and after a good laugh.
That stressed-out feeling (before a laugh)
When you experience stress of any type, cortisol, “the stress hormone,” surges in your body. Short term, cortisol helps you feel mentally focused and energized. Long term, it can leave you feeling irritable, anxious, and fatigued. Less observable changes include an increase in blood sugar and a weakening of the immune system.
The good news is that your brain is ready and waiting for you to take an action that will trigger the release of feel-good hormones.
What happens during and after mirthful laughter?
You’re stressed out after a long day. Then your kid says the funniest thing and gets you to crack up. Here’s a breakdown of why you feel so pleasant moments later.
Your brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus kick into action, producing beta-endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. Within seconds, they’ve spread throughout your body and have overpowered stress hormones (especially cortisol) to get you feeling:
- Positive, optimistic, and less tense (endorphins)
- Full of pleasure (dopamine)
- Warm and fuzzy toward others (oxytocin)
These hormones are not to be underestimated.
At a 15-year follow-up of 53,556 women and men, researchers of the Norway study on laughter found that women whose sense of humor measured on the high end were associated with a 48% lower risk of death from all causes. Men who had good humor had a 74% reduced risk of death from infection. The researchers suspect that a greater ability to cope with stress (and associated hormone levels) may be what contributed most to participants living longer.
Beta-endorphins that replace cortisol during laughter are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine and are immune system strengtheners (say that 3 times fast!).
1.5 (Surprise bonus!) Is it good for your heart to laugh?
You don’t need a doctor (or clown doctor) to know about the physiological changes that occur when you laugh. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Your lungs fill with oxygen-rich air, which
- Energizes the body
- Improves blood flow, vascular function, and flexibility
- The additional blood circulation
- Stimulate and protect blood vessels and heart muscles
- Relaxes muscles and eases tension
- Your heart rate increases, then decreases
- Stabilizing your blood-pressure
- Bringing a sense of calm
If the benefits ended there, you may feel only mildly impressed since you could get similar results from exercise. But there’s much more to the power of laughter as medicine.
Let’s talk about how it reduces pain.
2. Who said, “laughter is the best medicine?” Someone in pain.
I admit to binge-watching Emily in Paris during my first days post-surgery. I laughed at all the cringe it served up. The point was the laughter, and I got my share.
Maybe you have had a similar experience of being ill or in pain and seeking humor.
Turns out that laughing when in pain helps you feel better — but it’s not only because you’re getting a mood boost. Researchers at Oxford have found that our pain threshold actually increases about 10% after we laugh for 15 minutes.
Laughter is also a study-proven non-pharmacologic intervention (NPI, see box) to help reduce stress and anxiety.
We know laughter really isn’t medicine, but its health benefits are hard to ignore: Laughter is non-invasive, comes without side effects, plus it’s free and accessible.
Clowns Without Borders (CWB) artist Michael O’Neil believes that laughter is a frame of mind: He brings a rubber chicken on every tour because it gives him a chuckle knowing that the TSA might just open his bag and see it.
Now let’s turn to talk about two ways that laughter can improve your life beyond health and ease.
3. Which comes first: the friendship or the laughter?
During radiation treatment, I listened to two audiobooks: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Together by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
Guess which audiobook had me chuckling in the waiting room?
In the not-as-funny-yet-just-as-real Together book, Murthy talks about how people with chronic loneliness are at a higher risk of illness. Chronic loneliness is indicated by feelings that no one is looking out for you, that you are invisible, or that you have to solve problems on your own.
During the pandemic, self-reported loneliness in the US ballooned to 36%, with 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children reporting “serious loneliness.”
I guess it’s good to know I wasn’t alone in my loneliness?
Laughter is powerful medicine for loneliness
One of the most powerful benefits of laughter may be its ability to bring people together.
Sharing a laugh works to connect us quickly because, when you laugh at the same thing, your brain signals that you share the same worldview. And feeling that you’re coming from the same place (metaphorically, as a line of thinking and feeling) is key to developing a relationship.
Laughter cuts through social anxiety and social difference, connecting people across languages and cultures. The sound of human laughter is the most recognizable emotion-vocalization: it sounds the same regardless of language or culture. People from other cultures can even recognize the difference between laughter among strangers and laughter among friends.
Clowns Without Borders artists can attest to this reality: Artists have witnessed refugees, diverse in nationality, culture, and language (including Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis), stand shoulder-to-shoulder and laugh together during CWB performances—just like in the photo above.
You can see that laughter has been key to our evolution as cooperative social beings.
4. Laughter can change your life (red nose optional)
You’ll experience loss, ill health, or loneliness in your life.
Luckily, people like author, playwright, and storyteller Kevin Kling remind us we can survive loss if we can find our humor and move toward an emergence of what’s next. He shares, “When you laugh at something, it can’t control you.”
In 2010, CWB toured Haiti two months after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
Our artists used physical humor and nonverbal communication to connect with kids with broken limbs and amputations. A 2020 reflection of the tour speaks to the power of laughter to facilitate healing of traumatic events: “Every day, people would say things like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen that child smile since she was pulled out of the rubble two months ago.’”
What are your stories to tell? How can laughter facilitate change in your life?
If you want a few clowns to support you along your path, check out CWB’s laughter challenge, and learn how to make laughter a habit — one that changes your brain and makes life more fun.
So, is laughter the best medicine?
All signs point to yes (and, no, we aren’t just using our 8-Ball).
Never get used to laughing less, because laughter’s not a nice-to-have, but a necessary companion for health, friendship, and creating a life you love.
Take it from CWB audiences around the world: Sometimes all you need is a little boost to get the laughs rolling. Soon enough, you’ll be the one telling the next joke! We see it happen all the time.
CWB works to infuse laughter in places where laughter has been scarce, such as refugee camps or conflict zones. To learn more about CWB start here.