In the summer of 1995, an Indian physician named Dr. Madan Kataria went to the park and laughed.
He laughed for just one reason — for the sake of laughing. He was joined by friends, family, and perfect strangers, and just like that the first of what would become thousands of laughter clubs around the world began.
Dr. Kataria was inspired to belly laugh after reading Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient by Norman Cousins. The book detailed Cousins’ personal account of his own recovery. An editor for The Saturday Review, Cousins started having severe difficulty moving after an exhausting business trip, and was eventually diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis — a serious collagen illness. He was told that recovery was unlikely and that he had only months to live.
Cousins, however, was a man with an interesting outlook on life. He read Hans Selye’s The Stress of Life, which detailed how negative emotions affect the body’s chemistry. So he thought, “What about positive emotions?”
The topic of positive thinking was taboo in medical circles, but in his opinion he had nothing to lose. So he took his life-threatening prognosis into his own hands by supplementing his daily routine with enormous bouts of laughter and Vitamin C.
He went on to live for another 25 years.
The Science of Laughter — and Why It’s the Best Medicine
The study of laughter is called gelotology, a term coined by Dr. William F. Fry. It was only formalized as an area of academic focus in the 1960s, making it a fairly new science, which is funny when you think about it, because laughing is second nature.
“Laughter is ubiquitous in the human world population,” according to Dr. Fry. “No human group has been identified as being devoid of laughter.”
Granted, our natural instinct to laugh subsides as we age. A child may laugh up to 300 times a day, while the average adult only laughs 17 times.
Do things become more serious as we get older? Do we lose our sense of humor? Or do we simply need more creative stimuli?
Whatever the reason, Dr. Kataria offers the following advice: fake it till you make it. The laughing body, he says, doesn’t differentiate between forced and spontaneous laughter. It simply laughs — and the benefits remain the same.
But why do we laugh? And, as the saying goes, is it really the best medicine?
Laughter is About Human Connection
Most of us think that laughter stems from humor, comedy, and jokes. And, that’s often the case, especially if you’re in a packed house at a comedy show. But we mainly laugh because of a human connection.
Laughter is a primal system that evolved to help us in social situations. And, as stand-up comic and neuroscientist Sophie Scott says, it’s a system that’s there to make us feel better.
When Cousins laughed himself to good health, he was the first to agree with the many naysayers out there that insisted his recovery was nothing more than the placebo effect.
He wasn’t a medical doctor, he just followed his instincts. He had no real evidence to back up the reasoning behind his recovery other than the fact that he felt better. As stated in his book, when it comes to the placebo effect, “What we are talking about essentially, I suppose, is the chemistry of the will to live.”
The Benefits of Laughter
Since its publication, the study of laughter has gathered steam and, as a result, much more is known about its biochemical and physiological benefits. And there are plenty of them!
Here are some of the benefits of laughter on the mind, body and brain:
Laughter Strengthens the Immune System
When we laugh we release neuropeptides, which latch onto our immune system creating balance.
Laughter is a Natural Pain Reliever
Laughter boosts your endorphins, which alleviate pain and light up the pleasure centers of the brain. As Cousins said,“10 minutes of laughter gave me 2 hours of pain-free sleep.”
Laughter Improves Memory and Cognition
When we let out a good chortle or two, we send more oxygen to our brain, allowing for better brain function. Not only does this promote a healthier brain, the bare bones of the entertainment value of laughter promotes deeper interest in the subject at hand. This can prove incredibly useful in school, especially when a subject is, shall we say, pretty boring. “Humor creates an environment that promotes learning,” explains B. Savage, H. Lujan, R. Thipparthi, and S. DiCarlo, of the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology. “Evidence documents that appropriate humor, and humor that relates to course material, attracts and sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. Humor also reduces anxiety, enhances participation, and increases motivation.”
As Robert Frost once said, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Luckily, we have the tools to laugh, and laugh a lot, at any given moment. So when in doubt, laugh yourself silly for your good health because you now know that laughter is the best medicine after all!