Now that you know you’re releasing endorphins into your system when you laugh, I’d like to discuss the physical and psychological effects of humor and laughter on the body. It wasn’t until Norman Cousins wrote about how his experience with laughter changed his life that the scientific world began to take humor more seriously (p.18). Patch Adams, M.D., describes the physical effects of laughter, which Cousins once referred to as “inner jogging” (cited by Klein, 1989,p.18).

Although humor itself is difficult to evaluate, the response to humor- laughter- can be studied quite readily. Research has shown that laughter increases the secretion of the natural chemicals, catecolamines and endorphins, that make people feel peppy and good. It also decreases cortisol secretion and lowers the sedimentation rate, which implies a stimulated immune response. Oxygenation of the blood increases, and residual air in the lungs decreases. Heart rate initially speeds up and blood pressure rises; then the arteries relax, causing heart rate and blood pressure to lower. Skin temperature rises as a result of increased peripheral circulation. Thus, laughter appears to have a positive effect on many cardiovascular and respiratory problems. In addition, laughter has superb muscle relaxant qualities. Muscle physiologists have shown that anxiety and muscle relaxation cannot occur at the same time and that the relaxation response after a hearty laugh can last up to forty-five minutes. (cited in Adams,1993,   p.67).

Yow! Patch is one clown-doctor I can really believe in.

Fellow “jollytologist,” Allen Klein (1989), says the following regarding the physical effects of laughter: “Cousins calls laughter ‘inner jogging.’ That is because when we are engaged in a good, hearty laugh, every system in our body gets a workout” (p.18). Klein asks you to recall your last good belly laugh, “the kind where your sides hurt when you finished” (p.18). Do you recall my funny movie episode?  For me, it was “extreme” inner jogging; it was an exercise workout that even Richard Simmons could love; and it was the most healing belly laugh that I’ve had the pleasure to experience.

Barbara Dossey, director of Holistic Nursing Consultants in Santa Fe, N.M., further informs us of the various physical effects of laughter, as she explains there are studies which show that laughter unleashes chemical neurotransmitters and hormones throughout our body, contributing to an overall sensation of well-being in much the same way that exercise does (as cited in Roan, 1995,p.5H).

Annette Goodheart (Roan,1995), a Santa Barbara, California psychotherapist, and the author of a book on laughter therapy, educates as well:

There is this massive chemical shift going on. When you laugh, your cardiovascular system gets a workout. You take in massive amounts of air.  Your heart rate and blood pressure go up at first, then settle down at a rate lower than before you began laughing.  Even the anticipation of laughter shifts your body’s chemistry (as cited in Roan,      1995,p.5H).

If you need more medical evidence that shows you a healthy dose of laughter does the “body’s chemistry” a lot of good, and is an awesome full-body exercise as well, then perhaps Dr.

William Fry, Jr. (1989), well-known in humor research circles as “the granddaddy of laughter research in the area of physiological response”(Wooten, 2002,p.1), might be the one who convinces you to give up that over-priced gym membership, and let laughter do all the work! (Let’s go join a gigglegym!)

As Fry relates:

Mirthful laughter affects most, if not all, of the major physiologic systems of the body. Your cardiovascular system was being exercised as your heart rate and blood pressure rose and then fell again. Your heavy breathing created a vigorous air exchange in your lungs and a healthy workout for your respiratory system.  Your muscles released tension as they tightened up and then relaxed again.  And, finally, opiates may be released into your blood system, creating the same feelings that long-distance joggers experience as ‘runners high’ (as cited in Klein 1989,p.19). Wow!  Watching a wacky comedy did all this for me, and I didn’t even have to get off the sofa!  Imagine what it might do for you.

Humor and laughter have proven psychological benefits as well. “Humor,” says Allen Klein (1989), “gives us power”(p.4).

This wise “jollytologist” states that “In laughter, we transcend our predicaments”(p.4). Klein says that “We are lifted above our feelings of fear, discouragement, and despair.” He then concludes that “People who can laugh at their setbacks no longer feel sorry for themselves. They feel uplifted, encouraged, and empowered” (p.4). How can you argue with that?

“Psychologically, humor forms the foundation of good health”(p.66), says physician, Patch Adams, M.D.(1993).  He believes that “People crave humor as if it were an essential amino acid” (p.66). When our trials and tribulations begin to weigh us down, we desperately seek a comic antidote for relief, in the view of this clown-doctor. Patch feels that if a person is humor deficient, there may be “underlying problems like depression or alienation” (p.67). And if laughter can truly make people feel “peppy and good”(p.67), as Adams’s claims – it could also mean that “humor is an excellent antidote to stress” (Adams, Mylander,993,p.67).

I absolutely love, the almost lyrical-sounding way in which Patty Wooten (2002) informs her reader of the many psychological benefits of laughter. Wooten says, “At that magical moment of laughter, we feel relaxed, hopeful, open and forgiving. We no longer feel anxious, hostile, depressed, or alone”(p.xx). This clown -nurse truly embodies the compassion she liberally “doses” her readers and patients with, and helps us awaken compassion for ourselves and others. In her article in Jest for the Health of It!, Wooten (1994) conducted an interview with Dr. William Fry, for the Journal of Nursing Jocularity, which until recently was out of print. (You canceled your over-priced gym membership because of him, remember?)

She asked him to speak as a psychiatrist (which he is), and asked if he could ‘clarify the connection between humor and mental health?’ Dr. Fry believes that “humor is both a contributor and a manifestation of our mental health. It reflects a positive orientation to life and a sense of well being. Humor is not just a maneuver or a joke. It gives us a broader, deeper view of life. It influences the relationships between human beings, as well as their relationship to the world” (p.1). Fry claims that “Humor offers a kind of protection when we witness or encounter a painful event” (p.1).

Back in the seventies, a bit of laughter helped me to cope with the extreme stress and discomfort I was experiencing during neurosurgery, while under local anesthesia, without any tranquilizers to soothe my psyche. I now realize, after many years, that this was a healthy response to what was a very traumatic experience. I know I suppressed a few giggles, but I could not erase the smile from my face.