October 8, 2023
Recently, a person very, very close to me was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Now, I realize that does not seem like an appropriate and uplifting way to open an article titled “laughter”, but bear with me here.
Knowing the impact that your emotional state can have on the presence or absence of disease, and also the impact of emotions on your ability to be able to heal from biological assailants such as cancer, I was inspired to dive back into an old favorite book of mine: my friend Randy Alcorn's book Happiness. This book by Randy (along with his book Heaven) are both wonderful reads with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns about what happiness really means and what heaven will really be like.
Anyways, in Chapter 16 of Happiness, I came across the compelling tale of a man named Norman Cousins.
The story of Norman Cousins is detailed in the fascinating book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. As a political journalist and activist, Cousins was also a professor of medical humanities at UCLA, where he studied the biochemistry of human emotions and their relationship to healing.
In 1964, Cousins was hospitalized with a crippling disease of his collagen, along with a debilitating and painful condition called ankylosing spondylitis. Told by his physicians that he had a 1 in 500 chance of recovery, he opted to take his health into his own hands. So Mr. Cousins and one of his doctors, Dr. William Hitzig, combated the disease together by creating a regimen of laughter (interestingly, along with hefty doses of vitamin C), and were not only able to reverse the damage of Cousin's diseases, but also allow him to live to the ripe ol' age of 75, decades after his illness first occurred and far beyond what the medical experts of his day deemed possible.
As part of his healing journey, Cousins educated himself in scientific research and literature that describe the link between negative emotions and illness. One of the more notable resources he mentions in his book is Hans Selye's The Stress of Life (although I've personally found other similar titles to be The Biology Of Belief, The Body Keeps The Score, and The Emotion Code, all of which I mention—along with the science behind emotions and healings—in this article).
In his research, Cousins discovered that negative emotions, such as frustration or suppressed rage, are linked to the type of conditions he was experiencing, and he of course made the natural assumption that the opposite could be true: namely, that positive emotions such as love, hope, faith, confidence, and—you guessed it—laughter, would yield similar results.
Now, it's important to understand that in addition to his debilitating condition, the pain medications he was being administered—the equivalent of roughly 38 pills of aspirin and phenylbutazone per day—were causing significant tissue damage and internal bleeding. So, to repair Cousin's immune system, Dr. Hitzig utilized high doses of intravenous Vitamin C to combat inflammation and nurture his patient's deteriorating adrenal glands. Then, to combat the unbearable pain, Cousins himself leaped into a daily digest of comedy and laughter, most notably Marx Brothers films, Candid Camera, and selections from E.B. White's A Subtreasury of American Humor. He quickly discovered that just ten minutes of induced hearty laughter seemed to produce inducible hours of painless sleep.
The results were quite impressive. After several years of regularly scheduled “laughter therapy,” Cousins began to experience little to no pain in his day-to-day living, noting that:
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”
“When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
…and finally, my favorite:
“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.”
When paired with wise words from my favorite book the Bible, such as “A joyful heart is good medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22); “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.” (Proverbs 15:13); and “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11), along with many examples of God laughing, smiling and displaying the emotion of joy, this story of Norman Cousins backs up the fact that we humans were designed to laugh, to smile, and to be happy as a core part of our existence.
The Science Of Laughter
Of course, it's one thing to say that an emotion—say, gratitude or humor—is important to overall health and can cause positive biological healing effects, and quite another to demonstrably prove it in research.
But, it's been done.
Just a few weeks ago at the time of this writing, brand new research revealed that the old “laughter is the best medicine” adage has definite truth to it. This latest study demonstrated that having a good laugh causes the tissue inside the heart to expand, thus increasing oxygen flow throughout the body. Patients with existing coronary artery disease who engaged in a course of laughter therapy experienced dramatically lower inflammation and better overall health and functional capacity of the cardiovascular system. Over the three-month course of the study, half of the participants were asked to watch two different hour-long comedy shows each week. The other half watched serious documentaries about topics such as politics or the Amazon rainforest (yawn). At the end of the 12-week study period, the comedy group improved by 10% in a test measuring how much oxygen their heart could pump around the body. They also improved in a second measure that tested how well arteries can expand. Finally, they had blood tests to measure several inflammatory biomarkers related to blood vessel plaque, and the results showed that these inflammatory markers were significantly reduced compared with the control group.
This is just one of many studies demonstrating the power of laughter. For example, one of the most cited studies on laughter therapy is Dr. Michael Miller's research at the University of Maryland. Dr. Miller measured the blood flow of twenty healthy volunteers before they watched 15 minutes of two different movies: either the dramatic, violent opening to the war film Saving Private Ryan or a segment from the Woody Harrelson comedy, Kingpin. The goal of the study was to measure the expansion or contraction of the endothelium, which is the inner lining of blood vessels. A flow-mediated vasodilation test was used for the evaluation. This test measures blood flow in the brachial artery in an arm that is restricted by a blood pressure cuff and then released. An ultrasound device then measures how well the blood vessel responded to the sudden increase in flow. A total of eight of these tests were given to each of the participants.
After watching the stressful intro to Saving Private Ryan, Dr. Miller found that 14 of 20 participants' brachial blood flow was reduced by a constricted endothelium, while 19 of 20 participants' endothelial lining seemed to do the opposite and significantly relax after the Kingpin comedy segments. The results were quite dramatically opposite: blood flow decreased by an average of 35% during the war movie and increased by an average of 22% during the comedy.
These impressive results led Dr. Miller to conclude that laughter may be almost as healthy as exercise.
In a similar study also led by Dr. Miller, researchers asked experimental subjects several questions about the humor they experienced in everyday activities, half of which had experienced a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass surgery, and half of which had not. The results correlated with his previous study, displaying that people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations.
But there's more.
For 15 years, spanning a timeline from 1984 to 1999, researchers at Loma Linda University in California have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system. In one of these studies, participants watched Laurel and Hardy comedy shows with IVs in their arms, while researchers drew continuous blood samples. These results were also astounding. Natural killer cells that attack virus and tumor cells significantly increased in number and activity. The immune system's T cells, along with signaling components such as antibody immunoglobulin A, Immunoglobulin G, and gamma interferon (which helps antibodies attack dysfunctional or infected cells) also increased both during laughter and into the following day.
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Japan have also found surprising results related to blood sugar levels and laughter. They collected blood sugar measurements from participants with type 2 diabetes, both before and two hours after a meal. After dinner on the first day, the patients attended a “boring” 40-minute lecture. Then, on the second day, the identical dinner was consumed, but this time it was followed by a 40-minute comedy show. The post-prandial (after meal) rise in blood sugar was significantly lower following the comedy show compared to the lecture, and the same results seemed to occur even in healthy subjects without type 2 diabetes. The researchers stated:
“In conclusion, the present study elucidates the inhibitory effect of laughter on the increase in post-prandial blood glucose and suggests the importance of daily opportunities for laughter in patients with diabetes.”
Finally, I recently came across an interesting study titled Hand Grip Strength and Self-Perceptions of Physical Attractiveness and Psychological Well-Being. This study investigated the link between handgrip strength and self-rated physical attractiveness, sexual history, and social characteristics in 145 male university students. Handgrip strength correlated, not surprisingly, with both height and weight, but also with levels of self-perceived happiness, social confidence, and even overall physical attractiveness. So one might hypothesize that healthy doses of good humor not only make you healthier but could make you stronger too!
Based on this research into the field of laughter therapy, multiple organizations exist to support a healthy dose of humor for health, including Patient TV, which is audiovisual communication that offers comical programming on patient television stations; SMILE (Subjective Multidimensional Interactive Laughter Evaluation), a service that allows participants to answer questions about how they're feeling and what types of humor they enjoy, followed by “prescription” list of suggested reading materials, videos, and audios that person might enjoy; and even a “Laughter First Aid Kit” inspired by humor therapist Peggy Stabholz, which is basically a container filled with jokes, videos, and comics targeted to combat depression.
Finally the frequency and energy effects of laughter, from the energy, body frequency, and quantum physics standpoint I discuss here, also seem to be quite profound. As Brian Scott notes in his book The Reality Revolution:
“…a level of energy that is really powerful and accessible is that of humor and laughter. We can diffuse dark, depressing situations with a little humor to lighten the energy in the room. Books about ghosts will tell you that you can protect yourself from ghosts by laughing. It literally raises the vibrations of energy in a room and can instantaneously change your own energy. For that reason, I believe humor is the most powerful energy that we can focus on and become part of.”
So whether it's raising your vibrations, scaring away all the ghosts in your closet, decreasing your blood sugar, lowering your blood pressure, or increasing your healthspan and lifespan in general, laughter appears to be a demonstrably powerful addition to your life toolbox.
8 Ways To Laugh More
I hope that by now you are convinced of the significantly positive relationship between good emotions, humor, laughter, and overall health. But, it's one thing to know you should be laughing more, and quite another to know how to practically implement more laughter, comedy, and humor into your life. Admittedly, because I'm one of those guys who can crush a 16-hour workday totally straight-faced and sober and completely forget to smile, laugh, joke, or introduce any other humor or comedy into my own life because—let's face it—I'm busy, this is still something I'm working on myself.
But, I have found a few tactics that have seemed to work well for me lately that I'd like to share with you now.
- Embrace Your Inner Child. Look, I totally agree with the Apostle Paul in the Bible when he says in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” But I also think that many of us (including me) have excessively adulted ourselves to the point of humorless solemnity and that it's possible to have the lighthearted, prankster, don't-take-yourself-too-seriously attitude of a child without completely melting into a gooey pile of non-stop fart jokes, food fights and temper tantrums. So, tell more punny jokes (here is my favorite stupid Dad joke Twitter account), use weird accents in the check-out line at the grocery store, dress up like pirates and go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner, eat pancakes for dinner, and switch out that gory war film for some old Pixar classic.
- Family Dinners. For our nightly family dinner parties, which are one of the most cherished parts of my day, our entire family prepares a mouth-watering meal together, then we gather around the table over our food and, for nearly an hour, play hilarious games such as Exploding Kittens, Unstable Unicorns, Bears Vs. Babies, Moustache, Gubs, Scattergories, Telestrations, Idiomaddict, and our favorite The Fart Of War, along with all manner of other funny card and board games that are inevitably covered in food crumbs, oil, and grease by the time dinner is done. Often, we'll precede these dinners by putting on a silly song and having a dance-off, or slipping away upstairs into the boys' bedroom to watch an old, clean Saturday Night Live skit on my phone, or read a funny story from an author such as P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, or the very strange humorist Jack Handey.
- Stand-Up Comedy. While I eschewed stand-up comedy for many years because I considered it to be either A) a waste of time; or B) chock full of offensive material, I've recently refreshed my love for a good, family-friendly comedian, and now, when driving in the car and wanting some light-hearted audio, or looking for the occasional fun show to watch with the kids, I'm now enjoying stand-up once again, particularly from the likes of funny folks like Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, Jerry Seinfield, Jim Breuer and of course, my red-headed Patriotic friend JP Sears.
- Jokes. Recently I have begun, leading up to holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year, etc., hunting down holiday-topic-oriented joke websites and telling my children and wife-themed jokes leading up to or on the holiday. You know…silly quips such as “What goes “Oh, Oh, Oh?” Santa walking backwards!” or “What did the turkey say to the turkey hunter on Thanksgiving Day? Quack, quack!” For some reason, jokes and holidays seem to go together like, well, turkey and cranberries.
- Songs. Songs don't have to be funny, per se, to elicit feelings of joy and happiness. Heck, just the other night, as I was listening to a “stale” science podcast, I pushed the wrong button on my iPhone and accidentally switched it into full-blast Kayne West's song “Stronger” (yep, I have a lot of old-school songs on my phone!). I immediately felt a surge of fresh energy, which isn't surprising, especially relative to the podcast I was listening to, but I also felt an uptick in overall positivity of mood and even broke out into a smile as I began to sing along. So, occasionally taking a break from audiobooks, podcasts, or pure silence to pipe upbeat tunes into your eardrums, bedroom, living room, or office can be a sort of “gateway drug” into laughing and smiling more as the beats pick up your spirit. You can learn more about music, sound healing and emotions here.
- Pranks. Every day doesn't necessarily have to be April Fool's Day at your home, but lighthearted, relatively harmless pranks, such as a bit of extra hot sauce mixed into a family member's ketchup, drawing a mustache on a sleeping friend, putting a fake plastic spider into a briefcase, topping off a toilet with dry ice, or filling someone's closet with blown-up balloons can all be ways to keep spontaneity, dopamine, smiles, and laughter high in your household. Here are some more ideas for harmless, funny pranks you can play, without necessarily needing to buy Walmart out of toilet paper to TP an entire house.
- Outfits/Clothing. Let's face it: Dressing up in silly outfits can instantly spread infectious laughter and giggles amongst any crowd. So grab some funny t-shirts with witty slogans and wear them to places you normally wouldn't: like a fancy restaurant or a kid's piano recital. Host an ugly sweater party. Make your own hoodies, sweaters, and other clothing with witty phrases or cartoons (like this moose/mouse/mousse one I recently made on the website Zazzle). Play the obnoxiously funny game Moustache You A Question in a public restaurant. I have one friend named Virgil Knyght who is featured in Boundless Parenting (a book in which he dishes out many other creative family fun ideas) who used to take his family out to dinner once a month with everyone dressed up in their favorite pair of footie pajamas or craziest hat. You get the idea: Unleash your wardrobe to spice things up a bit too, even if it's not Halloween day.
- Just Smile. Finally, as one of my favorite, relatively new songs by the Black Eyed Peas reminds us: just smile. The mere act of turning up the corners of one's mouth and forcing a smile has been shown in research to create a sort of positive feedback loop cycle that can pick up your mood, even if you're not really, truly happy at the time. So, whether you're by yourself, or with others, try smiling more. Yep, research has shown that smiling actually works to trick your brain into happiness.
Ultimately, as Randy Alcorn details over the course of 479 pages in his book Happiness (which I cannot recommend more highly to you as a companion read or audiobook listen for a deeper dive into the topic of joy, laughter, and humor from a spiritual and physical healing standpoint, along with the book Anatomy of an Illness)…
…God is a happy, joyful God, and He wants us to be happy too.
The entire gospel is called “the good news of great joy” for good reason. The fact that God has gone to extraordinary lengths like this great sacrifice of Jesus to ensure our eternal happiness speaks volumes to the unimaginable happiness you can experience in eternal life in Heaven.
But in the meantime, even before we step into Heaven, joy and happiness are well within our reach, especially if we understand their immense importance in our lives and take practical measures such as those I've given you in this article to ensure we are surrounded by happy moments of laughter throughout each day. So grab your ugly sweater, smile, break into song, tell a joke, play a prank, watch some comedy, and stop being so serious already.
How about you? What tactics have you found to be helpful to stay smiling and joyful on an “average day?” Any particular websites, books, films, games, rituals, or other practices? I'd love to hear from you. Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.