We’ve been going through a rough patch. Name it: Covid fatigue, our overly-partisan political scene, endless stories about Russia’s possible assault on Ukraine.
Can anything pull us out of the dumps? The New York Times recently talked to a bunch of medical professionals who came up with a solution: Try a little laughter.
A cardiologist at a med school in Maryland called humor not only a distraction from grim reality but also a winning strategy to stay healthy. “Heightened stress magnifies the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes,” said Dr. Michael Miller. “Having a good sense of humor is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety and bring back a sense of normalcy during these turbulent times.”
Is there a scientific basis for the benefits of laughter? Actually, there is. Laughter releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels, reduces blood pressure, and decreases clotting. At least two studies have demonstrated its positive effects. In Japan, a study of older men and women confirmed that those who tended to laugh more had a lower risk of major cardiovascular illness. And a study in Norway reported that possessing a sense of humor was associated with living longer, especially for women.
A neuroscientist at University College London, Sophie Scott, pointed out that laughter has been shown to reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, thereby increasing the body’s uptake of feel-good endorphins.
Ready for more? There may also be cognitive benefits. According to a study conducted at Loma Linda University, watching a funny video was related to improvements in short-term memory in older adults; they also increased their capacity to learn.
The Times noted that some hospitals have initiated formal humor programs, making funny books and videos available to their patients. One nurse-manager who works with chronic-pain patients has tried teaching them laughter-exercises and other ways to enhance positive feelings like gratitude and forgiveness. Although the stress of the pandemic could make the experience of pain worse, she found that humor helped her patients “relax and release their grip on pain.” She advised patients to set aside time for humor on a daily basis (much like setting aside time for physical activity). She also recommended having “laughter first-aid boxes,” where patients can stash items like joke books and funny toys. Instead of their simply taking a pill, she liked encouraging people to “cultivate the healing power of laughter,” helping them to be in control.
Dr. Miller added that he was trying to bring a dose of comic relief into his own medical work, and he believed that his colleagues had begun to do the same. “The culture is beginning to shift—injecting humor and humanity back into medicine,” he said. If you can’t change the world around you, you can at least “change how you view it. Humor gives us the power to do that.”
So…if you’re thinking about choosing something to read or watch, consider something funny. It may be tempting to opt for anxiety-producing suspense or stories fraught with horror, but if you need a lift, you’re probably better off with humor.
My choice? I’m off to watch one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, The Marine Biologist. “The sea was angry that day, my friends”–but I won’t be angry or stressed. I’ll be laughing!