Gather round friends, laughter’s the best medicine

It’s no joke! Laughter really IS the best medicine, according to a group of researchers including a team from Oxford University

The findings of the decade long study, published by in The Proceedings of The Royal Society, found that social laughter was associated with an increased pain threshold which suggests that the act of laughing releases endorphins. Endorphins are naturally produced by the body in the central nervous system and have an analgesic (painkilling) effect. Endorphin levels in the body are usually measured from the bloodstream; but this doesn’t really tell us much about the levels in the brain (which is where the endorphins act), and for this reason these researchers chose to measure pain threshold as an indicator of endorphin release. The pain tolerance of volunteers was assessed before and after watching comedy videos or non-humourous documentaries. The participants were then made to feel various kinds of discomfort, including wearing an ice-cold sleeve or a tight blood-pressure cuff and squatting against a wall for long periods. In all cases, laughing with friends for just 15 minutes resulted in an average 10 percent increase in pain threshold

Laughter was associated with an increased tolerance to pain, but this effect was most significant when assessed in groups. ‘Laughter is very contagious-people don’t laugh much alone, but will laugh a great deal at the same thing in a group’ says Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study. So watching the comedy video in a group setting resulted in more laughter and a higher tolerance to pain

Interestingly, this study not only involved laboratory based experiments but these scientists took their research to the streets and used live theatrical performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as an outdoor laboratory, assessing both actors and audience to confirm their lab based findings

Endorphin release often occurs after physical exercise (hence the term runner’s high) so the researchers hypothesise that the muscular exertion involved in sustained laughter may be responsible for an endorphin release. A distinction was made between two different types of laughter; Duchenne versus non-Duchenne. ‘Non-Duchenne laughter is polite laughter and under conscious control’ says Professor Dunbar, while ‘Duchenne laughter is unconscious, and involves much more work by the chest muscles and a long series of exhalations empties the lungs and so is very exhausting.’ A polite snigger just won’t do, you need a full out gut busting laugh if you want to enhance your body’s endorphin levels

Humans may not be the only species to benefit from this effect as Professor Dunbar states that horses and bats do a lot of social grooming and it is suspected that they might show the same endorphin effect. Moreover, Professor Dunbar says this effect might explain why we often look for someone with a good sense of humour when we choose a partner

Could there be medical implications of understanding the link between endorphin release and laughter? According to Dunbar, “‘Medics have tried the use of laughter, and there are some studies showing that the more patients laugh, the less morphine they need as a painkiller, so yes, if we entertained patients with comedians twice a day, maybe the drugs bill would be lower!”

There’s more evidence about the therapeutic value of laughter. It’s also been shown to lower blood pressure. Japanese researchers divided 79 adults, aged 40 to 74, into three groups: one that listened to  one-hour music sessions every two weeks, one that participated in laughter yoga sessions (a combination of breathing exercises and laughter stimulated through playful eye contact — and listening to Rakugo, Japanese sit-down comedy), and one group that did nothing. The researchers found that, when measured immediately after the sessions, blood pressures were 6 mm Hg lower in the music group and 7 mm Hg lower among the laughter participants compared to measurements taken just prior to the sessions. The researchers found that improvements in blood pressure were still seen if the exercises were continued for three months

But wait, there’s even more! There is a growing body of research indicating that a good guffaw may improve immune function, boost mood and reduce stressand depression

OK, so laughter may not really be the best medicine,but  having a good laugh with friends definitely can’t hurt!

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