We can laugh our way to health, as journalist Norman Cousins described in his groundbreaking memoir of recovery from a life-threatening condition. Research shows laughter decreases stress hormones, builds “good” cholesterol, and lowers a senior’s risk of heart disease by reducing arterial inflammation.
So how can we get our daily dose of giggles and guffaws? Children laugh much more often each day than adults do, and they also have ten or twenty times the amount of energy as adults. This might be because they’re young and resilient — but it might be the laughter.
If we take a laxative to stimulate the colon, can we take a “laughsitive” to activate our funny bone?
Life Is A Funny Thing
Humor is all around us, if we open our eyes to it. For instance: one senior was describing to his daughter how he needed to complete a government form related to his housing tax refund. Nothing particularly funny about that.
However: he explained that the government sent him a form that told him he needed to complete and return a specific form he could download from the Internet. The form he received actually said on it, “This is not the form.” And the site for the form he needed to download didn’t work.
His daughter found this entire scenario hilarious. She said, “Dad, it sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit: ‘This form is not the form. The actual form is online. But you can’t access it.'” Why didn’t they simply send what was necessary? Who knows. But the situation lent itself to laughter.
Why Stress Is A Laughing Matter
The maxim that laughter is the best medicine is grounded in truth. Laughter decreases the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies, which helps improve short-term memory, according to a study conducted by Loma Linda University.
The Loma Linda research found that when seniors watched a 20-minute funny video, they not only had lower levels of cortisol in their blood — they were better able to learn and remember new information.
By contrast, long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol actually shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory formation and function, as well as the prefrontal cortex, which aids in problem solving and impulse control.
There’s a precedent for “laughter therapy.” In 1964, Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, was diagnosed with a degenerative collagen disease that left him in near constant pain. He had just returned from a very stressful trip to Russia, and reasoned that stress must have somehow contributed to his getting sick.
Cousins devised his own healing regimen, which included watching a continuous stream of humorous films. He claimed that ten minutes of belly laughs produced two hours of pain-free sleep, something even morphine could not provide. After several years of laughter therapy, he was able to resume a normal life.
7 Ways Laughter Benefits You
Here’s how a good belly laugh helps a senior’s body and mind:
- Happy hormones. A hearty laugh releases endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins cause an analgesic effect that promotes an overall sense of well being — and can temporarily relieve pain, as Cousins discovered.
- Immune tune-up. Because laughter decreases stress hormones, it also boosts your natural immunity and infection-fighting antibodies. This increases your resistance to disease. When you feel yourself coming down with a cold, the best response (besides rest and warm liquids) might be to start laughing!
- Healthy heart. Laughter dilates the lining of your blood vessels, thereby improving blood flow, which can help protect your heart. Together with reducing stress and boosting your immune system, laughter is a triple-threat to disease, and a boon for ongoing wellness.
- No-diet weight loss. Anybody aiming to lose a few pounds will be happy to learn that laughing burns calories. So while it’s not a substitute for regular physical exercise and nutritious meals, laughing every day is going to help keep you in fighting trim. And laughter-based exercise combines the best of both worlds, improving older adults’ mental health, endurance, and confidence.
- Problems in perspective. Everything looks better when you look on the light side. Just as the daughter saw the humor in “This is not the form,” finding the inherent humor in a situation can help (en)lighten your load.
- Live your intention, not in tension! A hearty laugh relaxes your muscles and mind, sending stress packing. As such, laughter might even add years to your life as well as life to your years.
- Laugh your way to longevity. People who laugh a lot may actually be extending their life span, according to research. If you’re aiming to become one of the burgeoning numbers of centenarians on Earth, keep laughing.
Strengthening Your “Amuse” System
So perhaps instead of instantly deleting those humorous email forwards that land in your Inbox, it might be useful to read them first. Here are a handful of other suggestions for ways to build your humor muscles:
- Find funny people. It may seem obvious, but some people walk around wearing a frown; others, a smile. Choose to spend time with happy faces. We have a lot of these here at Kensington Park, especially in our extensive, ever-evolving Life Enrichment programs.
- Put a positive spin on “senior moments”. That’s what Harry did. The creator of Harry’s Senior Moment launched his intergenerational comedy improv troupe when he turned 81. They’ve been delighting audiences throughout South Florida ever since. You can find comedy improv classes locally — or suggest we start one as part of The Kensington’s Life Enrichment program.
- Invite your inner child out to play. If you have grandchildren, their natural giggles will be infectious. You can also “borrow” someone else’s young visitors or join in their fun. Your own Inner child is ready to laugh along.
- Visit a comedy club. There’s a lot of humor in and around the Metro D.C. area. Be adventurous: ask a few of your fellow Kensington Park pals to accompany you to a literal fun night out.
- Try some amusing activities. You may never have been a fan of karaoke before, but it’s inherently humorous. Try a funny activity, or simply a fun one that you enjoy. Putting a smile on your face is the first step to laughter.