Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Laugh Your Way to Health & Success

The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease—Voltaire

Laughing makes you stronger, friendlier and sexier, says psychologist Steve Ayan in an article in the April/May 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, entitled, “Laughing Matters.” LOL! Who would have thought, huh? Ayan contends that “seeing the bright side of life may strengthen the psyche, ease pain and tighten social bonds.” Cheerfulness, he tells us, is linked to emotional resilience—the ability to keep a level head in difficult circumstances.
Oh, and it’s also very sexy.

It seems that we’re hardwired for humor; but in different ways, depending on whether we’re extroverts or introverts. Allan L. Reiss and a team of researchers at Standford University School of Medicine demonstrated in 2005 that extroverts reacted to jokes primarily through the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex and introverts through the amygdala and the temporal lobe—pleasurable emotions originating from different parts of the brain in these two groups.
Neuroscientist Wolfgang Grodd at the University of Tübingen showed in 2008 that naturally cheerful people responded to humor through the inferior parietal lobule, which is involved in resolving incongruities (an essential skill for appreciating humorous circumstances); they suggested that this activity characterized a person easily amused and one who enjoyed ambiguity.

“Every year, there is more evidence that your thoughts, moods, emotions, and belief system have a fundamental impact on the body’s basic health and healing mechanisms,” says Dr. Paul McGhee. According to Ayan, studies have shown that laughing can cause a drop in the blood’s concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. “Because chronically elevated levels of cortisol have been shown to weaken the immune system, this mechanism could conceivably ward off disease.” In fact, experiments have demonstrated that laughter increases the activity of immune cells.

Many humor researchers believe that the psychology of humor—more than laughter itself—are what provide the real benefits to our mental and physical health. “Humor is an intellectual skill that requires an ability to view situations in a particular light.” To do this, one must shift one’s perspective. Humor is often based on a logical twist, paradox or displacement, says Ayan. Ayan is talking about being able to look at life askance and see everything in metaphor. He cites an example from one of my favorite satires, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. When the Mad Hatter announces to Alice that “If you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk about wasting it.” When Alice declares that she has to “beat time,” to learn music, the Mad Hatter responds, “Ah! That accounts for it. He won’t stand beating.”

Psychologist Nancy A. Yovetich and a team of researchers demonstrated that humor provided a cognitive and emotional distancing from a stress or trauma—even physical pain. Ayan tells the story of Norman Cousins, the journalist who found that his pain tolerance increased after watching the Marx Brothers.

Similarly, humor was shown by psychologist Willibald Ruch to ameliorate the pang of defeat and disappointment. People who are naturally cheerful demonstrate a psychic robustness that emotionally buffers people against crises and enables them to see “silver linings” in major disappointments such as loss of a job or being a Saint Louis Blues fan today (sorry guys...)

Dr. McGhee says, “Voltaire (and your grandmother) recognized long ago that humor and laughter are good for you. You've probably noticed yourself that you simply feel better after a good belly laugh. The problem, of course, is that your sense of humor generally abandons you right when you need it the most--on the tough days. But if you manage to bring your sense of humor to your daily conflicts on your job, your relationship with your spouse and children, and your health or financial problems, you'll go a long way toward improving the quality of your life; and you'll boost your physical health and well-being.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Laughter is indeed such a good medicine. Why do so many get a satisfaction of being miserable and looking on the black side?

Janet said...

"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

A piece of wisdom 3000 years old.

These researchers are going to have to move a little faster if they want to catch up. ;o)

SF Girl said...

LOL! Yes, those old-timers knew what they were saying! HAR!

Jean-Luc, you bring up a very interesting point... why DO people seem to love misery? ... maybe because the "slide" down follows gravity and entropy and some of us like to "wallow" once we find ourselves down there... Let's face it, we've all been there... in the dark deep dungeon of one's purgatory. Dante wrote about it (metaphorically, of course) in his Divine Comedy... It's just a lot easier ... and it takes energy to look up and out of that "hole"...As Michael J. Fox so astutely said, "Happiness is a decision." And laughter and humor are just notes of that musical aria...