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  • Writer's pictureTammy Miller

The Healing Power of Humor, The Science of Funny, Part III

Gelotology is the study of humor and laughter, and their effects on the body. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist and director of Women’s Heart Health at the Heart and Vascular Institute, Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said in a 2014 Forbes magazine article about prevent- ing heart disease: “It is also important to never forget to laugh. Laughter improves immune function, lowers blood pressure, enhances mood, and decreases stress and depression.”

What kind of laughter produces the best benefits? “The duration of the laugh is not as important as the reason behind it,” says a leading preventive care specialist, Dr. Lee Berk, who has studied the health benefits of laughter for three decades and is an associate professor at the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health in California. He says in a 2019 Loma Linda University interview that laughter has benefits similar to moderate physical exercise, and advises: “Mirthful laughter, as opposed to nervous or embarrassed laughter” releases hormones associated with “good stress (eustress) and decreas- ing bad stress (distress),” making you more “sickness resistant.” He recom- mends treating laughter as a discipline, like physical exercise, and setting aside time to laugh for 30 minutes a day, three or four times a week, by watching com- edy, reading books that make you laugh, or otherwise enjoying laugh-inducing social company. “Happiness is the optimal immune system responsivity. Laugh as often and as much as you need until you feel good!”

In addition to physical benefits, a hearty laugh also has mental bene- fits, such as reducing fear and anxiety, improving mood, and making us more resilient when encountering adversity. “Humor keeps negative emotions in check and gives us a different perspective, allowing us to see some of the bad things that happen to us as a challenge rather than a threat,” says George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, in a 2020 New York Times article. Experts say more research is needed to bring gelotology into mainstream medicine as a complement to medical treatment, but it is gaining recognition. In addition to the research done by Dr. Berk and his team, organizations like the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, as well as the Israeli Dream Doc- tors, to name just a few, are dedicated to promoting research on therapeutic humor in hospitals, during times of disasters and beyond, to study this important correla- tion between humor and healing.

Laughter Yoga In the mid-1990s, a new movement started to make its way across India with the concept of laughter yoga and the beginning of laughter clubs. An Indian medical professional, Dr. Madan Kataria, became interested in laughter and how it improved the mental and physical well- being of patients. Seeing positive results, he set out to bring more laughter to people. With five people in a public park in March 1995, in Mumbai, India, Kataria and his group started sharing jokes and funny stories. People passing by saw and heard the laughter and wanted to join.

To continue the momentum, Kataria went back to the research and surmised that the body cannot tell the difference between real laughter as a response to humor and just starting to laugh out loud. According to Kataria, “Voluntary laughter can give you more benefits than sponta- neous laughter because laughter, as a form of exercise, is much more sustained and longer to bring about physiological and psychological changes.” His work proved this point, and the discipline of Laughter Yoga was born, with 20,000 clubs now existing across the globe.

Value for Speakers Across all cultures, people are born with the ability to laugh. However, not all humor resonates across all cultures. For some jokes to work, there must be a level of familiarity of terms within the culture to understand why a joke is funny, even when we speak the same language. How- ever, while humor does not always have a direct translation, it can still be very contagious. Most of us have experienced a presentation where one person starts laughing, and others join in the laughter. When you try to engage your audience, use a joke or funny story as a way to pro- mote unity.

We are experiencing times of stress throughout our world right now, so take advantage of humor as a coping tool. If we can laugh in moments of adversity, even momentarily, we can gain hope and a new perspective. So, go ahead, use humor in your next presentation! You may help to lower the cholesterol or blood pressure of your audience—and feel free to laugh along, for your own health’s sake.

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