I love the film Patch Adams. I love the unconventional approach to hospital care and the risks Robin Williams took in his role as an alternative practitioner of laughter. Did you know that there is evidence that laughter really does affect our health?
A good laugh has great short-term effects. When you laugh, it doesn’t just lift you mentally, it brings physical changes in your body.
A study at Oxford University in 2011 found that laughter increases our pain threshold. Researchers found that subjects who had watched comedy videos could withstand 10 per cent more pain than normal. Another study, at the University of Arizona, found laughter boosts heart health and a report by scientists at the University of Maryland in 2005, showed blood flow increased by a fifth when people laughed.
Not only does laughing release endorphins, it also reduces stress hormones. The Maryland study found it dilates the inner lining of our blood vessels, the endothelium, and so improves circulation. “Your immune system is boosted by up to 40 per cent,” explains laughter therapist Julie Whitehead, whose work includes training staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Prolonged laughter has also been shown to lower blood pressure and improve mental function. I was also interested to note that the Greek word for laughter in the Bible means “cure” Maybe there is a wisdom in laughter we have missed.
So what can we do? Well we can learn to laugh just like we can learn anything else. Find funny cartoons or pictures and stick them up, choose to watch funny DVDs or TV programmes or buy yourself a joke book. Choose to laugh at your situations and share the laughter with others you trust. It can be good to spend time with people who make you laugh and who help you see the funny side of things. Some places even have laughter clubs. Even if it feels awkward, give it a try
It is suggested that just 15 to 20 minutes of laughter can make a difference. Maybe doctors should start prescribing 20 minutes of laughter a day in the same way they would advise exercise. As adults, we only laugh 15 times a day whereas for children it is around 300 times. Maybe if we bring belly laughs back into our lives we will find that laughter is the best medicine.