Laughing for health

by Margo White / 14 January, 2012
The evidence that laughter can ease pain or confer any specific health benefits is far from conclusive, but it certainly seems to be contagious.


If you are still in the process of evaluating what improvements you should make to your life this year, you might be advised to incorporate more laughter into it. Google “health and laughter” and you will find all sorts of persuasive claims about the health benefits of laughter: of its ability to reduce stress, lower the risk of cardiac disease, boost the immune system, increase pain tolerance and so on.

As you might expect, things are not as simple as a quick Google search might suggest, and as several researchers have pointed out, much of the evidence claiming links between specific health benefits and laughter is not conclusive.

Some experiments have shown that being exposed to good comedy can influence aspects of immunity, but the results are inconsistent and the studies have methodological problems.

There is evidence of laughter’s analgesic (painkilling) properties, but similar findings been found in relation to sadness. Some studies suggest people who laugh a lot are less disposed to heart disease, but there is little evidence that people who laugh most live longest.

How exactly anyone could actually ever go about scientifically quantifying the health benefits of laughter over an individual’s lifetime is anyone’s guess, but you don’t really need empirical evidence to know that we could always do with more of it. Would it be too outrageous to suggest that if we could choose the way we die, many of us would choose to die laughing? Judging by those German soldiers felled by the “killer joke” used by the British Army in the Monty Python sketch, it’s not a bad way to go.

Laughter is an enigmatic aspect of human psychology, but it seems that it is instinctive and innate, whereas other emotional outbursts (of anger, sympathy, fear) are learned. Many laughter researchers note that hearty laughter increases the production of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, and a mutual endorphin rush tends to bring us closer together; this is probably why we like people who are funny, and like people who think we’re funny.

And yet contrary to popular perception, laughter is more often deployed as a conversational gap-filler than as a response to anything particularly amusing. The US-based psychologist and laughter researcher Robert Provine looked at more than 2000 instances of natural laughter over 10 years, and found that people are more inclined to laugh in relation to comments such as “Hey John, where ya been?” or “Here comes Mary”, than in response to witty conversation.

Provine’s position is that our brain makes us laugh before we have time to think about it, as laughter is a necessary social lubricant – dispelling tensions, putting people at ease, signalling goodwill or a less-than-serious intent. Laughter, in other words, is a form of communication.

It’s also catching. For one of the most bizarre examples of the contagiousness of laughter, consider the epidemic of laughing that broke out on January 30, 1962, at a mission-run boarding school for girls in Kashasha, Tanzania. The laughter started with three girls and spread throughout the school, making it impossible for students to concentrate and forcing the school to close. The epidemic then spread, to other villages and other schools, where it had similar consequences.

Some have suggested this hysterical eruption was a collective response to a tense social and political time in Tanzanian history. Alternatively, a study published in the International Journal of Humor Research (there really is such a thing) has put it down to a motor-variant case of mass psychogenic illness of which laughter is a symptom.

For a more poetic interpretation of the Tanzanian case, look to Carol Ann Duffy’s epic poem, The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High, which begins with a note passed between classmates that provokes hilarity that spreads from girl to girl, class to class, until anarchy roars “like a tropical wind” throughout the school. In Duffy’s poem, laughter doesn’t create social cohesion, as collective laughter is thought to, but liberates both students and teachers from the pomp, decorum and constraints of an oppressive education. It’s as persuasive an argument for the therapeutic power of laughter as any study. It’s also very funny.

“What is the survival value of the involuntary, simultaneous contraction of 15 facial muscles associated with certain noises which are often irrepressible?” queried Arthur Koestler in his examination of creativity, in The Act of Creation. Who knows? Social scientists will no doubt continue to speculate on its origins, and health researchers look for evidence of its therapeutic merit, but as Provine has said: “Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can.”

NEEDY BIGOTS


Prejudice stems from a psychological need among people who aren't comfortable with ambiguity, according to an article in the Association of Psychological Science. The authors argue that people who are inclined to prejudice dislike uncertainty and complexity, and will rely on the most obvious information to categorise the world.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER


Scots have among the highest rates of heart attacks in the world, but a study from the University of Edinburgh shows that those of Pakistani origin are twice as likely to be admitted to hospital with chest pain and angina than those of white Scottish ethnicity and those who defined their ethnicity as Indian were 40% more likely. White Scots were 20% more likely to be admitted to hospital with angina than white English populations in Scotland, but had similar rates to those of Irish ethnicity. Among populations living in Scotland, those of Chinese ethnicity had the lowest rates of heart disease.

PASS THE SALT


Healthy policymakers in the Netherlands are getting more than the daily recommended salt intake from one hot meal at work, according to an informal study published in the British Medical Journal. The researchers, from the University of Amsterdam, who focused on policymakers dining at the Department of Health, the Health Council and the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, expected that their subjects' diets would reflect greater awareness of the risks of excessive salt. Instead they found they were eating around 7g of salt in one canteen meal; the recommended daily intake is 6g.
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