To laugh or not to laugh is not even a question.
During times of anxiety, stress and uncertainty, the value of laughter does not come with a price tag. So, apart from being free, it is contagious (in a positive way) and is good for your health in many ways.
Furthermore, it is a birth right that should be exercised as often as possible.
Have you ever heard that it takes more muscles to frown than laugh? Never has a truer word been spoken as laughter resembles the play grunts apes make. Unlike speech, producing this sound involves almost no movement of the tongue, jaw or lips.
It therefore does not come as a surprise that humans use laughter to form and maintain social bonds because it is an outward display that we understand each other.
This social and emotional control makes laughter incredibly powerful. For example, we do not always laugh because something is funny; instead laughter is used to indicate that you are okay, not hurt or trying to hurt somebody when you accidentally bump into each other while rushing to catch a closing elevator.
Observational studies have documented that the majority of laughter actually stems from statements and comments, rather than jokes. In addition, the person who has just spoken laughs more often, suggesting that laughter is not necessarily a reaction to what was said, but a type of bonding acquired over time through social interaction.
Another benefit associated with laughter is that it helps you to cope with stressful situations. In this instance, it’s indicative of the fact that you are comfortable enough to use laughter as a tool to negotiate a better mood, together. The bottom line of almost all laughter is that people laugh when they are with people they like, but also when they feel physically safe.
So, why is laughter good for your health?
First, it relaxes the body by relieving physical tension and stress, apparently for up to 45 minutes after you had a good laugh. This association is linked to decreased levels of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenalin), dopamine and growth hormone.
Another surprising health benefit is that it boosts your immune system by decreasing stress hormone levels, increasing the level of immuno-
globulin A and natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell. However the evidence is not yet conclusive and further research is needed to explore the mechanisms of these effects in greater detail, using larger study samples.
Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals that inhibit the communication of pain signals. Endorphins may also produce a feeling of euphoria similar to that produced by other opioids used for pain relief. Hence, endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can temporarily relieve pain.
You can also boost heart health with a belly laugh because it improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, due to the release of beta-endorphins, which in turn, activate receptors on the endothelial surface of blood vessels to release nitric oxide. Endothelial derived nitric oxide induces smooth muscle relaxa-
tion, with a resultant widening of blood vessels and a reduction in artery inflammation.
Ever wondered why sitcoms have laughter edited into them? Well, as it turns out, laughter really is contagious. If you hear others laugh, you are more likely to join in the laughter. Hence, hearing others laugh, even for no apparent reason, can often trigger genuine laughter.
What can you do to bring more laughter into your life at a time that is no laughing matter?
Create opportunities to laugh by watching a funny movie, TV show or YouTube video.
Seek out funny people (even if it has to be virtually), share a good joke or a funny story, play with a pet, or get up to mischief with your kids. If you don’t have children, pay attention to other children’s behaviour because they are experts when it comes to playing, not taking life seriously, and laughing at ordinary things.
Even if you don’t consider yourself as being a light-hearted, humorous person, you can learn to laugh.
Smiling is the beginning of laughter, and just like laughter, it’s also contagious.
When you look at someone or see something positive, smile.
Seek out people who like to laugh and make others laugh.
Count your blessings by literally making a list of what you should be grateful for. The simple act of taking a step back to take stock of your blessings and positive aspects of your life, will distance you from
negative thoughts that block out humour and laughter.
Look for the humour in a bad situation, and uncover the irony and absurdity of life.
Bring humour into conversations. Try to avoid negative people and don’t dwell on news stories, entertainment, or conversations that make you sad or unhappy. Many things in life are beyond your control - particularly the behaviour of other people.
An essential ingredient for a sense of humour is to learn not to take yourself too seriously and laugh at your own mistakes. We all do foolish things. Embrace your imperfections and share them with others.
While some events in life are clearly sad, most don’t carry an overwhelming sense of either sadness or delight. They fall into the grey zone of ordinary life, giving you the choice to laugh or not. So choose to laugh whenever you can.
- Professor Kassier, RD (SA) is the head of department in the discipline of dietetics and human nutrition and academic leader: teaching and learning in the School of Agriculture Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.