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  • Maria Kelly

Making the Case for Laughter

When I chose laughter as the topic to write about, I had no idea where it would take me. Since starting to research, I uncovered more than I thought possible, and it has been a fascinating journey. Besides, I just feel better about myself because I enjoy laughing almost more than anything else, and I can tell in my bones when I have not laughed enough! I have been scolded and reprimanded for being a lifelong laugher. Admittedly, it has been disruptive or inappropriate, but in my adult life, it has been admired and appreciated. I have been complimented for being able to bring a smile to many situations as well as a good laugh. I am now going to make a case for why laughter is essential and should maybe be encouraged and embraced as a required practice to open meetings, negotiations, or before difficult conversations.

There is a name that sums up the science of the study of humor and laughter and the effects it has on us, and it's called Gelotology. It comes from the Greek word for laughter, gelos. Sources state that the study of laughter and its use as a prescriptive treatment for what ails us has been around since antiquity. This paper will touch on the history of how laughter has been recognized and acknowledged as having specific health benefits. I will also cover the scientific and clinical research from the 20th and 21st Century studies that have focused on the use of laughter as a treatment and the general impacts it has on us as humans and, therefore, society. Dr. William F. Fry, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, is called the father of Gelotology. He began his path of study in the 1960s and experimented with the laughter of humans, gorillas, and orangutans. While Dr. Fry brought legitimacy to the science of it, Dr. Patch Adams, brought laughter into the hospital setting in the 1970s. Since then, multiple physicians, psychologists, and therapists have ascribed to using laughter as a treatment for many physical and psychological ills. Research has also been done on the neuroscience of laughter and impacts on our brains and people near us. Mirror neurons may be responsible for our inability to suppress a giggle. And finally, I will share what I have learned regarding the social and personal impacts of laughter and, at that time, will have hopefully successfully made a case for homage to laughter.

History of Humor and Health

In Laugh After Laugh,(Moody, 1978), Dr. Raymond Moody Jr, chronicles the role of laughter in the court of kings and queens and even calls out the biblical quote from Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones." (Moody, 1978, p 28). He also shares that in the Middle Ages, humor therapy was used and that 'mirth' as an aid to recovery from surgery by a medieval professor of surgery, Henri de Monderville, 1260-1320 (Moody, 1978). His prescription was to encourage family and friends to tell jokes to keep a patient's spirits up and to avoid negative emotions because they would interfere in the patient's recovery. Also, Dr. Moody recounts multiple historical monarchy's and court jesters who are responsible for 'curing' melancholy and ills by keeping the royals laughing.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) wrote Anatomy of Melancholy, which is considered to be one of the earliest textbooks of psychiatry. Moody shares and excerpt from Burton's book, of a collection of quotes by Mesue (unknown), Rhasis, a Persian physician (854 AD-925 AD), and Montanus, a 2nd Century Christian prophet, all were extolling the virtues of mirth, hilarity and keeping merry company. This excerpt, along with others I found, unequivocally show that laughter and humor are historically and across many cultures and time periods a universally recognized important part of our humanness. And, more importantly, part of maintaining good health.

Many other physicians, psychiatrists, and philosophers touch on humor and health. While some study was done in the early 1900s, it wasn't until the 1960s and Dr. Fry's work that he became the first Gelotologist and stated that the science of laughter was worth studying. He was the first to suggest research work be done, and while he requested financial support in 1964, the Vietnam war got in the way, and the formal study would begin much later. He was able to document the physiological and psychological impacts of laughter. As I mentioned in the introduction, Dr. "Patch" Adams, brought laughter into medicine in the 1970s and continues with his work today through his Gesundheit Institute. While he currently is not taking on patients, during his practice, laughter therapy was a daily routine (Strean, Laughter Prescription, 2009). Throughout the paper, I will share additional information about other physicians and therapists who have documented the importance of laughter and the benefits of laughing.

Science and Laughter

Growing up, one of my favorite magazines was The Reader's Digest. My favorite section and what I read first every time, Laughter the Best Medicine. It was one of the first things I read that made me laugh so hard I would cry. In an article from 2000, The Science of Laughter, researcher, Robert Provine, and three of his graduate students observed 1,200 people laughing spontaneously in various situations. Due to the historical lack of research on laughter, he believed that he could learn a lot from laugh patterns, and he did:

"Most people think of laughter as a simple response to comedy, or a cathartic mood-lifter. Instead, after 10 years of research on this little-studied topic, I concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes."

What he also concluded is that females laughed 126% more often than male counterparts. Though, while females may laugh more, males get more laughs. He did not say that males are necessarily funnier, but men appeared to be the main instigators of humor across cultures. Although he also stated, "I suspect, however, that the gender patterns of laughter are fluid and shift subconsciously with social circumstance." (Psychology Today, 2000).

Dr. William B. Strean, Ph.D., wrote in his 2009 article, Laughter Prescription, stated that the physiological benefits of laughter were unproven other than a complimentary association to the patient's treatment regime. He did identify and support the role of humor and laughter in patient-physician communication, psychological aspects of patient care, medical education, and reducing stress among medical professionals (Strean, 2009). Throughout the articles and the books I read, there was no disagreement that the act of laughter has biological impacts on our bodies. Depending on how hearty the laugh, impacts how much our heart rate, respiratory rate and depth, and oxygen consumption increases. Immediately following a laugh, there are the corresponding decreases, including muscle relaxation and lowering of blood pressure. What the article and the citations that Dr. Strean references, the conclusion of the article is that laughter as an intervention and treatment needs additional research and study. More recent research has been completed to show that there physiological benefits beyond laughter as a positive enhancement in our lives.

In a 2018 article, author Jordan Rosenfield's, 11 Scientific Benefits of Having a Laugh, pulled together multiple studies that make a case for the health benefits of laughing. A 2015 study found that mother's who engaged in a group "laughter dance routines," laughter therapy, two times per week showed a slight increase in immunoglobulin (IgA) in small amounts. The significance is that during postpartum, IgA in breast milk declines. Another study done with college students found that watching funny movies increased salivary IgA (sIgA). The article also states that researches have found that laughter increases natural killer cells (NK's), a type of lymphocyte found in the blood.

Dr. Madan Kataria, M.D., founder, and author of Laughter Yoga, states that laughter is the antidote for our natural stress response. Stress is a physiological response, and sustained stress releases chemicals that are harmful to our bodies while increasing our heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and blood sugar levels to manage critical or threatening situations. However, if the stress is sustained too long or does not reset property, there are negative impacts on our physiology. The two hormones that do this are cortisol and catecholamines. Cortisol leads to impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, increased abdominal fat, which can lead to other health problems. (Kataria, 2018, p 135). Catecholamines are immune-suppressive hormones. Too much and they harm the body's immune system and can lead to poor memory and depression as well as irregular heartbeats (Kataria, p 136). Dr. Kataria makes the case that laughter, another type of physiological response, alleviates stress, and quickly reduces the associated stress chemicals and hormones.

A good laugh can result in significant reductions in minutes and last for days. The resulting chemicals and hormones released are NK cells, endorphins, serotonin, growth hormone, interferon-gamma (IFN), and many others with extended periods of laughter. Dr. Kataria believes that laughter reduces the symptoms of depression and prevents many diseases and disorders caused by chronic stress. IFN, in particular, activates T cells and B cells and NK cells. IFN fights viruses, tumorous cells, including cancer and blood samples, were taken before, during, and after laughter exercises show significant increases in IFN levels that can last into the following day (Kataria, pp 138-140). From Dr. Kataria's perspective, the benefits of laughter and particularly laughter yoga, fall into two categories: preventative and therapeutic. From a therapeutic standpoint, laughter builds a healthy immune system and boosts oxygen levels in cells, which in turn leads to better health. Exercise also increases oxygen level at the cellular level. It can lead to better health. While laughter may not be the cure for heart disease and hypertension directly, indirectly, laughter expands blood vessels, promote circulation, and reduces blood pressure (Kataria, pp 147-148). It's possible for good bouts of laughter to reduce the need for certain medications treating heart disease and hypertension. Therefore, the doctor makes the case that there is most certainly a physiological benefit to regular, sustained laughter.

Social Impacts

My favorite fun fact that Provine mentioned in his article, the first laugh track used on a television show, was September 9, 1950, at 7:00 PM on the television show, "The Hank McCune Show" as it was not filmed in front of a live television audience. Laughing is a social interaction with more laughter happening in groups of people versus someone laughing alone. Why do we frequently start laughing when someone else starts laughing? Laughing is contagious, after all! In the Rosenfield article, 11 Scientific Benefits of Having a Laugh, when patients laugh, they needed less pain medication. Laughing feels good and makes us feel good. Laughing in a large group at a movie theater is something we, as humans, seek out to do. We go to comedy clubs and watch comedy specials on Netflix. There are other reasons why we laugh when others are laughing, mirror neuron theory. Dr. Kataria observed that when people laugh in a group, they are not all laughing at the same thing. Sometimes people laugh just because someone else laughs. Our brains have specialized cells called mirror neurons. Because of them, we imitate and emulate the actions, behaviors, and emotions of others (Kataria, p 48). So we are duplicating the behavior of those around us, and laughter is particularly appealing, and as I stated at the beginning of this section because it is fun!

There is another reason we laugh, and it may be instinctual. Provine's article, quoted earlier in this paper, laughter is a way we bond to each other across cultures, and it's a way we "play" together and build warmth. When we are angry at someone, we know we have made up when we can share a laugh together again. In fact, it was suggested in an online help guide for better mental health that we release anger and forgive sooner when we laugh. Even though the laugh is an unconscious response to social and linguistic cues, we can feel when a laugh is welling up on our body. I know for myself, I would seek out people who made me laugh, and those were the people who became my friends and who I chose to spend time with. In social situations, laughter is not always "good." Author David DiSalvo, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite, points out in his article from 2017, Six Science-Based Reasons Why Laughter is the Best Medicine, laughter helps with forming social bonds, and that the shared endorphin rush promotes a sense of togetherness and safety, not all laughs are the same. In groups, there can be taunting or teasing laughter that may not have the same effect. Different parts of our brains respond differently to different types of laughter. Our brains help us decipher what is being communicated.

In Lynne Barker's article from The Conversation: The Science of Laugher and Why It Also Has a Dark Side, 2017, laughter is a "vital component of adaptive social, emotional and cognitive function." Social laughter is something that, even when we hear, can make us smile. But there is also another side of laughter that can be a sign of something more ominous, and we can sometimes decipher that there is something wrong with a situation or a person when the laugh changes. Experiencing that moment when in a group and someone laughs nervously to maybe try and coverup for something that they said that was cruel and no one laughs with them. Clearly, not the same positive shared experience. Or, there are pathological reasons why someone may laugh at a less than optimal time. People with High Conflict Personalities (HCPs) are an excellent example of an underlying behavior or pathology that means they may not laugh on an appropriate social cue or laugh at a proper level. Hypothetically, a narcissist may have a streak of cruelty where laughing at someone else's misfortune may be funny for them, but not everyone else around. Observing laughter and timing could be a tool to assess people's mental state and condition. While psychological disorder may be one reason a social laugh is not rewarding, there are some neurological conditions as well. Overall, social laughter is healthy and warm, and something we as humans tend to seek out. As a side note, some other mammals socially laugh as well. Barker also points out in her article that we may become concerned if we see someone walking down the street laughing alone and seemingly at nothing. We can have a concerned response since someone laughing alone can seem awkward and unusual for sustained periods.

DiSalvo also points out that women will typically rate humor as one of their top-three traits to be considered when choosing a mate. He reported that couples who laugh together have higher-quality relationships. I did not come across other references that shared this same statement or this idea, but it makes sense! As we instinctively respond and actively engage in laughter, we are healthier and happier people. That is the entire premise behind Dr. Kataria's movement of laughter yoga. He developed the movement to address his unhappiness and started a laughing club (Kataria, Laughter Yoga, 2018). Laughing clubs are now worldwide and are where people come together to practice breathing, stretching, and laughing exercises.

Laughing Clubs are not drop-in yoga clubs. There is something special about them. Kataria reports that the people in their groups report a sense of belonging. Some people reported that after being a member of a laughing club, they had therapeutic benefits that ranged from mental health to physical healing. Overall, the experiences are examples of emotional contagion resulting in a cathartic experience (Kataria, pp 108-109). Dr. Kataria points out that smiling is the first non-verbal language we learn and is how we can safely communicate non-verbally. Smiling is the first step towards laughing, and for some people, they have a hard time spontaneously smiling, but when they practice and learn how to smile and laugh, they feel better, are happier, and more connected.

Individual Impacts of Being Able to Laugh

While laughter tends to happen when people are together, there are significant impacts on individuals separate from the experience. In the Help Guide previously mentioned, when we incorporate humor and laughter into our lives, we are happier. We can practice smiling when we are alone. Even if you don't feel like it, several articles and Laughter Yoga, state that even when alone, practice smiling for no specific reason, and your mood will improve. Then when out in public, a smile may come more quickly, and the positive impacts of sharing a smile with someone are contagious.

To be able to get to laughter sooner when the opportunity presents itself, be grateful and write it down. When we focus too much on negative thoughts, these can act as blocks in other parts of our lives. Kataria shares four ways to bring more laughter into your life: singing, dancing, playing, and creativity. The personal benefits to cultivating these activities and incorporating will result in the health benefits shared earlier in this paper.

People with a highly developed sense of humor tend to have higher emotional intelligence. The point is, even if laughing does not feel natural sometimes, it is possible to cultivate a sense of humor that will translate into laughter. Being able to laugh at ourselves and use laughter to bring people together is a desirable trait in a leader. Being able to put people at ease and bring people together through a shared laugh is positive for everyone in the room. Laughter is a connector of people, and the leaders that can bring laughter in as a robust communication tool may be better at team building than the one who does not.

And finally, Daniel Goleman, best selling author of Emotional Intelligence, shared in an article he wrote for Korn Ferry:

A leader's strengths in emotional self-awareness, positive outlook, and teamwork play crucial roles in unleashing humor and fun at work. Emotional self-awareness lets us more accurately assess our strengths and limits and makes it easier to laugh at our foibles. People who use self-deprecating humor typically have strengths in emotional self-awareness.

When our brain is operating from a place where we feel safe and connected, collaboration and innovation turn on. The dopamine rush helps teams connect to the vision and work ahead.

Thinking back to my favorite leaders, laughing together was a critical component to how close we felt to each other and how hard we worked to execute the strategy.

Summary

The title of this paper is Making the Case for Laughter, is because with all the research presented, I think that all meetings, negotiations, mediations have the potential to be more successful and more satisfying if they started with a good laugh! Why not go through some of the exercises that Dr. Kataria outlined to help people get into a state of mind that is not fixated on the negatives. I have participated in many meetings that start with sharing gratitude, and I like it. What if at the beginning of a stressful meeting, everyone could take five to ten minutes to reset and settle in with a laugh. While it is not standard practice, what if we started incorporating it into the more stoic stressful situations, and then, after the stressful meeting, another shared laugh and take some time to help people's stress hormones drop down and reset for better health.

Would it be possible that if the United States Senate or Congress started every day of session with a hearty ho-ho-ho so that the other not funny silliness would lessen and possibly cease? If laughing more became a cultural priority, we could see less substance abuse, less road rage, less sadness. Since laughter and laughing is part of what we are born with, and we can learn how to do it better, I propose that laughing yoga becomes a priority that would benefit our overall health and wellbeing. Laughter is a shared language throughout the world and one that unifies and warms, I am making a case for laughter.

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