Written by David R. Hamilton PhD
“You can’t beat a good laugh.”
This is a popular saying where I live.
It’s one of the most pleasurable things a person can do. One of my fondest childhood memories is of watching episodes of Laurel and Hardy.
It’s hilarious slapstick comedy set in the mid 20’s to mid 50s that follows the fortunes of two down-on-their-luck men – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It wasn’t just Stan and Ollie that formed my memory, though, it was seeing my Dad laughing so hard at them that he had tears streaming down his face.
Slapstick comedy of this kind has always been a favourite of mine. I recently watched an episode where Laurel and Hardy had to move a piano to the top of a very high flight of stairs and it kept falling back down, usually dragging Hardy with it. I was laughing so hard that my ribs were hurting.
If you’re ever in need of a pick-me-up, I’d recommend some Laurel and Hardy.
Laughter is not only one of the most pleasurable things humans can do, it’s also one of the healthiest.
The health benefits of laughter
Many people have heard at least a reference to the famous story of Normal Cousins who, after suffering with the debilitating pains of a connective tissue disease and ankylosing spondylitis, found that just a ten minutes of belly laughter each day had an anaesthetic effect that gave him about two hours of pain-free sleep.
Modern research can now point to why laughter was so successful for Cousins. We now know that it can dramatically reduce inflammation, and especially in people with high inflammation. And high inflammation is characteristic of connective tissue diseases and forms of arthritis, like ankylosing spondylitis.
And we now also know that it can reduce pain not only by deflating inflammation, but by increasing endorphins too.
Laughter is also a tonic for mental health. It can boost happiness, alleviate depression, and reduce stress and reduce anxiety. It can even give us a sense of optimism in life. And it’s known to improve sleep quality.
It’s great for the heart. It can reduce blood pressure, improve blood circulation, and improve artery function.
It even gives some of our muscles a workout and burns calories. This is why laugher is sometimes referred to by researchers as, “internal jogging.” Laughter even improves respiration.
And it’s good for the immune system. Studies show it increases levels of beneficial antibodies and boosts natural killer cell activity.
It boosts human connection too. Laughter is a social emotion. Outside of watching comedy on TV, we mostly tend to laugh with others. Laughing together for a common reason shows us that we are comfortable in the space together. It breaks down barriers and makes conversation freer. It can unite groups of people who don’t know each other and even those who don’t usually get on.
It’s also contagious. I once demonstrated this during a lecture where I spoke a little about laughter, explained some of its health benefits, and then pointed out that when you see someone laugh it makes you laugh too.
So, I took a deep breath and then let out a loud laugh. It’s a laughter yoga technique. It starts as a pretend laugh but swiftly turns into the real thing. Then a few others started laughing. Within what must have been less than a minute, everyone had joined in the chorus of laughs.
And it all started with just one laugh.
But it’s not always easy to laugh. Sometimes in life, things have been tough for a while, and we struggle with finding a reason to laugh. Or even escaping from a feeling of heaviness long enough to be able to laugh.
We’ve all been there. Many are right now.
But we can learn, or re-learn, to laugh. We just sometimes get out of practice.
Laughter is trainable. The brain is neuroplastic. It means it’s always being shaped and rewiring. It’s what makes learning possible.
They say that babies laugh about 300 times a day, compared with adults who laugh about 17 times, and some barely at all. As we grow up and learn to take life much more seriously, we just get out of the habit of laughing at everyday things.
But it’s one habit that would be healthy if we could rekindle it.
Your laughter project.
How about you set yourself a “Laughter project?” Make it a goal to increase how much you laugh in life. Here’s a few ideas:
1) Make a list of comedy programmes, series, and films that you’ve laughed at in the past.
Determine to frequently watch or listen to something from your list. Think of it like taking a painkiller for a headache, except you’re taking an experiential laughter pill as a mood elevator.
2) Make a list of comedians you find funny.
Determine to watch or listen to something from your list as often as you can, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
3) Keep a look out for new comedy films or TV series.
4) Practice laughter yoga. Take a slow deep breath, pull a really broad smile, and then let out a big laugh as you exhale.
Do it ten times a day, preferably in the morning as it’ll set you up for the day. The first couple of laughs will be pretend ones, of course, but you’ll soon find that they’ll become more natural as you practice it and that your smile muscles will start to feel much more comfortable in the smile position.
5) Try to see the funny side of life. Be on the lookout for funny things as you go about your day.
If you decide to do this, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll see, hear, or come across that you would usually miss.
6) Take a pen and paper and write about some of the funny things that have happened in your life, either to yourself or friends or family.
Recall funny events, things you’ve witnessed or experienced, things that didn’t seem funny at the time but now, on reflection, are hilarious.
7) Find some photos, cards, or even comic strips that you find funny. Stick them up around the house so you see them every day.
Why do we laugh at inappropriate times?
As I wrote above, laughter is trainable. Sometimes in life, we just get out of the habit of it. So, let’s train ourselves to get back into the habit.
Before I finish this blog, have you ever found yourself laughing at inappropriate times? It’s quite common.
I know I have. There’s a few different theories as to why we do it. One theory goes that we do it unconsciously to try to lighten painful moments. It’s part of the social aspect of laughter. Some bit of our brain thinks that by laughing we’ll reduce someone else’s pain.
Another theory goes that it’s a way of regulating our own emotions, especially if we’ve been feeling emotional or overwhelmed. It’s a sort of reflex that helps us reduce the intensity of how we’ve been feeling.
But whatever the reason, it’s common. So don’t feel embarrassed if you do it.
Let me end this blog with one of my favourite jokes.
“Did you hear about the scarecrow who won a Nobel Prize?
It was outstanding in its field! “
Oh well, I thought it was funny. J
And just to finish, here’s some links to some of my favourite contagious laughter videos.
Or just search for “Contagious Laughter” on YouTube.
I just did it before I posted this and spent the last 15 minutes in tears!
David R. Hamilton PhD
After completing his PhD, David worked for 4 years in the pharmaceutical industry developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer. During this time he also served as an athletics coach and manager of one of the UK’s largest athletics clubs, leading them to three successive UK finals. Upon leaving the pharmaceutical industry, David co-founded the international relief charity Spirit Aid Foundation and served as a director for 2 years.
Now a bestselling author of 6 books published by Hay House, he offers talks and workshops that fuse science, the mind, and spiritual wisdom. David writes a regular blog for the Huffington Post.
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