The Good Stuff


Teency children, starting at about four months, laugh about 400 times a day. Adults seem to laugh only about five times a day. This has got to have at least something to do with why growing up often stinks. The authors of this article start by reporting about a case of a woman with a mood disorder that was difficult to control. But she was more easily controlled with medication once she started doing “laughter yoga.”

Now “laughter yoga” sounds like my idea of a crashing bore.  I think that this discipline — invented by an Indian Doctor in the 1990’s — is intended to make people laugh without using words.  From what little I can find it seems to depend more on the “contagious” nature of laughter than on any humorous content. I suppose laughter can exist, as a neurophysiological entity, apart from content. A bunch of neurophysiological imaging studies, which I have actually attempted to read, implicate practically every part of the brain I can think of. Tickling initiates laughter in a baby (and on several occasions, in my husband as well).

The postulated receptor mediating this response is the 5HT1A receptor.  This receptor is known to bind serotonin and it does a lot of cute things, including lowering aggression and increasing sociability. Come to think of it, this is what happens when you tickle a baby anyway, and this receptor, seems to me, has been associated with the release of Ocytocin, known to us more lovable docs as “the cuddle hormone.”

Humor has been assessed by “structured scales” — those questionnaires which psychologists love because they take all types of fuzzy psychological ideas and make them into real science by rating them with numbers.  An example would be “How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being so sad that you cry and 10 being hysterical?” The two most popular scales to measure a sense of humor are the Coping Humor Scale and the Humor Response Scale.  These are serious documents.  I can tell because they have copyright notices printed all over them so you can’t photocopy them. There are bits of evidence in many places that suggest laughter is good for you.  One of my favorite studies shows how laughter stimulates your immune system by activating cells that defend your body from Bad Beasties like germs and viruses.

Laughter helps pain.  No study is more compelling than the frequently quoted writing of Norman Cousins who reduced the pain of his ankylosing spondylitis largely by screening comedy movies. There are a few studies on the benefits of laughter therapy for depression — they all look as if it could only help. In practical practice, I tell folks to isolate videos that they are certain to make them laugh and to regularly set aside time to watch them. My recommendation is to watch them during meals since they are less likely to forget to eat. Why not combine the two pleasures? It certainly seems to work when people actually do it. The hardest thing though, I’ve got to admit even though it sounds like blasphemy, is to get folks to take regular laughter seriously. I know it is cliche’ but laughter really is the best medicine.

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