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The Healing Power of Humor

The importance of laughter for your health.

By Tammy A. Miller, DTM


Illustration of three people in park laughing and stretching

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A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” — Irish proverb

Do you like to laugh? The ability to find humor in life’s situations, especially these days, may be more important than you realize. It’s often said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and since the 1980s, much research has been done on the role laughter plays in aiding the physical and mental healing process.

We are bombarded by information about the importance of healthful eating and staying in shape for optimal living—especially during a pandemic. Let me add another crucial component to overall health: the need for more laughter in life.

Jessica Breitenfeld, Club President of Spreeredener in Berlin, Germany, is a therapist with expertise in “laugher therapy.” She volunteers as a hospital clown and says, “Laughter breaks down awkwardness. When you want to make people feel comfortable, help them laugh. Realizing you laughed at the same thing as a stranger makes you feel like-minded and in a trusted circle. You have then created a safe environment where trust, connecting, and learning can occur.”

Why does this have value to you as a speaker? The suggestion is not that you try to heal your audience through the use of humor, but that humor and laughter can make both you and the audience feel better.

Norman Cousins is credited with launching the humor and healing movement in the United States with his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. Diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease in the 1960s, with no cure or hope from the medical community, Cousins, at the time the chief editor of the Saturday Review magazine, started a self-prescribed vitamin regimen and humor process to reduce the stress in his life. While confined to his bed, he found and watched comedy clips and funny movies (such as Marx Brothers classics) to make him laugh. Heartily.

We are experiencing times of stress throughout our world right now, so take advantage of humor as a coping tool.

“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he wrote.

Cousins eventually published his personal research results in the New England Journal of Medicine and helped fund early research on the topic.


The Science of Funny

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 preventing 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 decreasing bad stress (distress),” making you more “sickness resistant.” He recommends 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 comedy, 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!”

“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”

—Norman Cousins

In addition to physical benefits, a hearty laugh also has mental benefits, 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 Doctors, 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 correlation 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.

“When you want to make people feel comfortable, help them laugh.”

—Jessica Breitenfeld

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 spontaneous 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. However, 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 promote 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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