Can you laugh yourself to better health?

The old adage, “laughter is the best medicine,” continues to ring true as studies show the positive health benefits from a good, hearty laugh.

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Lyn Hester has been talking about the connection of health and humor for years. In 1989, she founded the National Clown and Laughter Hall of Fame, now a division of The International Center for Humor and Health, and today she travels throughout the country speaking about how to manage stress through humor and how to incorporate more humor into people’s lives.

“Stress related illnesses – ulcers, migraines, hypertension and depression – account for 70 to 80 percent of all doctor visits,” Hester says. “And although a pill may be the expected treatment, we often overlook the coping mechanism with which we have been naturally endowed – humor! Humor in Latin is the word ‘umor,’ which means flexible or fluid like water. So humor is actually a coping mechanism. It is resilience, a way to take what life gives you and roll with the punches.”

According to Hester, a few of the many benefits of laughter include reducing stress, increasing oxygenation and circulation, boosting the immune system and reducing pain.

A day without laughter is a day wasted. – Charlie Chaplin”

“Several studies have shown that exposing people to humorous experiences significantly increases their ability to deal with pain. When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins – the body’s natural pain killers,” Hester says. “Humor helps us cope with difficulties and gives us perspective. It momentarily removes us from the situation and allows us to look at the world a little differently. Much of the suffering we experience is not a result of our difficulties but how we view them. It is not so much the actual event that causes us pain as how we relate to it.”

She adds that time and space provides a better perspective.

“A bad hair day after a little time can be a funny story,” says Hester. “Practice laughing at yourself; the more you do it the easier it gets and the less the world bothers you.”

Dr. Lindsay Patterson, a clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher with Saint Francis Health System, recommends that people watch or read something daily to really feel a good laugh. She suggests Reader’s Digest, newspaper comics, TV programs and funny YouTube videos as possible sources for a daily chuckle.

“There is science to suggest that smiling does increase one’s sense of well-being, so I do encourage people to ‘at least half-smile,’ perhaps pretend to be Mona Lisa and smile a while as they do something routine and notice the effect,” says Dr. Patterson. “So half-smile as you get dressed, or half-smile as you empty the dishwasher or walk to get the mail, and notice that your face does relax a little, your shoulders lower as stress releases.”

Other positive activities she suggests include learning and telling jokes, dancing at home to your favorite music, doing creative crafts and journaling about the good things that happen to you during the day. She also notes that sometimes just telling people to have some fun is a good prescription.

While laughter is good for you, it may also help others. Recent studies have supported the thought that laughter is contagious. However, it’s important to support laughter that’s positive and uplifting.

Dr. Jacob Greuel, an attending physician with the In His Image Family Medicine Residency Program with St. John Health System, emphasizes that choosing inappropriate humor, often at the expense of others, can do you more harm than good. He notes that King Solomon, known as the wisest man on earth at the time, wrote “there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

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