Weekly Feature

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What Makes Laughter the Best Medicine?

April 01, 2009
by Liz Colville
In honor of April Fools’ Day and National Humor Month, we look at the science behind laughter and uncover some sites that encourage this stress-relieving phenomenon.

Celebrate National Humor Month

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Today is April Fools’ Day, an annual celebration of jokes, pranks and light-hearted trickery. But did you know April is also National Humor Month? According to the Librarians’ Internet Index, National Humor Month was founded by Larry Wilde, Director of The Carmel Institute of Humor. Competing with National Poetry Month for attention, National Humor Month “is designed to heighten public awareness on how the joy and therapeutic value of laughter can improve health, boost morale, increase communication skills and enrich the quality of one’s life.”

National Humor Month’s Web site provides some background on April Fools’ Day, but explains that no one can precisely say when the tradition started. Mentions of it can be traced back to Europe in the 1500s, but “Shakespeare, writing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, made no mention of April Fool’s Day, despite being, as Charles Dickens Jr. put it, a writer who 'delights in fools in general.'" So we’re left with some mystery and plenty of documented examples of the holiday in practice.

The National Humor Month site points out that even when April Fools’ Day pranks are bad, they’re still funny. To that end, the site lists “The Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time," from the Museum of Hoaxes, along with “The Top 10 Worst April Fool’s Day Hoaxes Ever."

The Science of Laughter

Why do we laugh? Is there a scientific explanation of what happens when we do, and why it’s considered the “best medicine”? Dr. Know of Discovery Health explains that in a recent study at the University of Maryland, subjects were observed as they watched serious movies and comedies. During the comedies, subjects’ arteries dilated and their blood pressure dropped, leading Dr. Know to conclude that while laughter isn’t definitively “the best medicine,” it is “certainly strong stuff.”

Want to know more? Read the press release on that University of Maryland Medical School study. The study, conducted in 2005, recruited 20 heart-healthy, non-smoking participants with an average age of 33. The results showed “for the first time that laughter is linked to healthy function of blood vessels. Laughter appears to cause the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow.”

The study also showed that the opposite effect occurred on the blood vessels when the subjects watched suspenseful films, which “suggested there was a link between mental stress and the narrowing of blood vessels.” So, like exercise, laughter is stress-reducing (and exercises the lungs, as Discovery’s Dr. Know points out).

But so much of laughter is social, begging the question whether there aren’t more community-linked benefits to the phenomenon and clues to our evolution as humans in laughter. In a 2000 study, Robert Provine, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, observed 1,200 people “laughing spontaneously in their natural environments, from the student union to city sidewalks.” Provine and his team made some intriguing observations: The speakers “laughed almost 50% more than their audiences.” Even banal questions and statements like “Where have you been?” and “It was nice meeting you, too” provoked laughter, which “suggests that the critical stimulus for laughter is another person, not a joke.”

Provine detailed his observations about laughter in an article in Psychology Today. He also noticed that laughter “was 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. The students were much more likely to talk to themselves or even smile when alone than to laugh. However happy we may feel, laughter is a signal we send to others and it virtually disappears when we lack an audience.”

The study also revealed that females laugh more than males; “positive emotional tone,” groups and playfulness trigger laughter; and laughter is a form of “self-effacement” that Provine suspects does not display itself as much at the top of the corporate ladder.

But don’t listen to him! No matter what job you have, keep on celebrating National Humor Month with the links below.
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