Common sense has always associated laughter with a sense of wellbeing, even with good health. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones,” according to the Book of Proverbs. A laugh clears the mind and reduces tension, most people would add: Yet science has a hard time demonstrating what everybody “knows” to be true, and there’s something inherently funny about researching laughter—which may explain why few scientists have studied it. Here’s the latest from those hardy enough to tackle the chemistry of cheerfulness.
“Positive affect,” as the psychologists call a happy face, was the subject recently of a study at the University of Maryland. Groups of students were asked to solve a problem requiring ingenuity; given. Some matches, a box of tacks, and ‘a candle, they were told to attach the candle to a corkboard wall in such a way that it did not drip wax on the floor when lighted. The trick was to take the tacks out of the box and attach the box to the wall so it would function as a candle holder. Students who watched a comic film just before taking the test succeeded three times as often in finding the solution as those who watched an educational film. The researchers theorized that a person in a good. Mood has a greater tendency to combine his ideas in new ways, that is, to react creatively to an intellectual challenge. And in another recent study subjects who saw a funny film had lower levels of stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) than a comparable group who didn’t watch the film.
Laughter also appears to have its uses when people are dealing with illness. A dozen years ago Norman Cousins (now a professor of medical humanities at the School of Medicine at UCLA) startled the medical community by
Claiming that watching the Marx Brothers had helped him recover from a serious arthritic disease affecting his spine and joints. There’s no documentation for his claim: he may simply have experienced spontaneous remission. And yet research has since uncovered the fact that laughter increases respiratory activity, oxygen exchange, and heart rate. It may stimulate the brain to produce endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. It can reduce depression. Scientists have even speculated that laughter may be related to longevity. A good laugh is free, and you don’t need a prescription. As one expert on the subject has said, “Humor, then, is not only valuable in human life, but valuable in a way nothing else is,”
So while medical science attempts to quantify the benefits of laughter, keep your sense of humor. If necessary, become a Marxist—a la Groucho, Harpo, or Chico.
Article extracted from this publication >> September 30, 1988