The magic of a good laugh

Cracking up can be great for all aspects of health, from lowering blood pressure to relieving depression and stress

Special to The TribuneDecember 7, 2012 

Linda Lewis Griffith

I love a good belly laugh. You know, those milk-through-the-nose moments when your vision clouds with happy tears, your muscles cramp from overuse, and your giggles and guffaws drown out all other sound.

Laughter not only tickles our funny bones. It’s great for all facets of our health. For instance, laughter works wonders for the heart. Research at the University of Maryland showed one group of participants scenes from the war movie “Saving Private Ryan” and another group clips from the comedy “Kingpin.” The comedy group’s blood vessels relaxed and dilated, thereby improving circulation, while the other group’s blood vessels constricted after only afew minutes of intense drama.

Laughter triggers the release of pain-killing endorphins. In a study reported in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, surgical patients who were told one-liners before receiving their pain medication required less medication than those who didn’t hear the jokes.

An outburst of hilarity can have immediate impact. Vital organs are stimulated. Muscles are relaxed. Tensions melt away and are forgotten.

But it can also have long-lasting benefits. The immune system is strengthened. Blood sugar levels stabilize. Laughers sleep better and feel less stressed.

Our psyches benefit from side-splitting episodes, too. Beneficial neurotransmitters are released when we laugh, so our moods get an instantaneous boost. Depression and anxiety are replaced by euphoria, and self-esteem soars with each titter.

Humor doesn’t even have to occur in real time to be effective. The mere recollection of past gutbusters can do us a world of good. By recalling favorite moments, then vividly savoring each hilarious detail, we can elicit the same physical responses and reap the benefits they bring.

Unfortunately, few of us get our quota of laughter. We fret about our kids and jobs. We view humor as frivolous, unbecoming. The more stress we experience during the day, the more likely we’ve relegated hilarity to the sidelines. This attitude exacts a hefty toll. Dr. Michael Miller at the University of Maryland Medical Center discov ered that “people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations.”

In fact, tense situations call for more levity, not less. A well-timed joke or a pertinent cartoon can be just the right tool for minimizing discomfort and putting others at ease.

The very best laughs are shared with others. We become instant soulmates through our sputtering lack of self-control and the humor we’ve found in a particular circumstance. The companionship spreads from one giggler to the next like a virus in a crowded room. Yet this is one contagion we’d all like to catch.

HOW TO ADD MORE HUMOR TO YOUR DAY

• Seek out humor. Watch a funny movie or sitcom. Go to a comedy club. Read the comics in the newspaper. Host a game night with friends. Do what it takes to infuse laughter into your life. Then revel in the levity it brings.

• Create a “Wall of Smiles.” Post cartoons, jokes, funny sayings and cards on a pin board. Place it in clear view. Enlist the help of others to enhance your collection.

• Hold a private laugh-in. Recall a silly situation or act as if you’d heard a hysterical joke. Start with a lighthearted chuckle. Advance to uproarious guffawing. Let go of all restraint. Go for that Academy Award. Don’t worry about others’ opinions. This emotion’s just for you.

• Be spontaneous. Stop over-thinking. Do something just for fun. Buy a frozen yogurt and top it with gummy worms. Get a whacky pedicure. Relish the feeling of freedom — however it looks to you.

• Play with children. Wrestle with your toddler. Build a model with your grandson. Kids always remind you how it feels to be in the moment.

• Spend time with lighthearted people. Positive emotions are contagious. So surround yourself with funloving souls. You’ll absorb their positive energy and keep would-be Eeyores at bay.

• Blog about your quest. Tell others online that you want more humor. They’ll be more than happy to comply. You’ll instantly establish your own support system while finding others on your same path.

• Laugh at yourself. We’ve all been in ridiculous situations. We’ve made our share of dumb-bunny mistakes. Even if your current stage is serious, find aspects that make you giggle.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com.

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