Laugh your way to a healthier you

 
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We’re born ready to laugh. In fact, as part of a normal baby’s development, they will begin laughing at about the age of three months. That’s long before we begin to say our first words—older babies begin to start speaking at the age of nine to 12 months.

If you’re wondering what makes babies laugh, British psychology researcher Caspar Addyman has the answer. According to Ideas.Ted, he has investigated what makes babies laugh with research involving 1500 mothers and fathers from 62 countries.

“Contenders for the most hilarious game included such heavyweights as making silly noises or playing with puppets,” he reports. However, “the hands-down winner, even across different countries, was . . . peekaboo.”

Why does this make babies laugh more than funny faces or silly sound effects? “My one-word answer is ‘people’,” Addyman says. “If you want to make it two words, it’s ‘adult attention’ or, ‘human connection’.” He explains that, compared to other games—such as making funny noises or using puppets—it is “pure social interaction, it really is about the eye contact and the connection with the baby”.

When you play peekaboo, the key moment is when “you come back into eye contact with them, and the fact you’re keeping the game going is delightful and causes them to laugh”. Addyman suggests that babies’ laughter is their way of sharing and rewarding your attention. “They’re having a conversation with you,” he says—with the laughter and a baby’s smile being positive reactions to your facial experessions.

We’re born ready to laugh.

Six benefits of laughter

David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, notes that “laughter is one of the best tools we have for dealing with stress, and science backs that up”. Good laughter is also “a potent drug with the contagious power of a virus that conveys a slew of benefits for the mind and body”. He lists six health benefits:

Laughter releases endorphins. These are “our homegrown feel-good chemicals—via opioid receptors”. The word “opioid” hints of a reality that highly opioid drugs such as heroin also bind to these receptors. This suggests “that laughter induces euphoria not unlike a narcotic (minus the obvious drawbacks)”.

Laughter forms social bonds. This endorphin effect “explains why social laughter is so contagious. Spreading endorphin release through groups promotes a sense of togetherness and safety.” It becomes like a “game of endorphin dominoes” as each brain becomes a “transmitter of those feelings, which triggers the feel-goods in other brains via laughter”. Often people will laugh without knowing what others are laughing about.

Laughter fosters brain connectivity. Not just connectivity, but “rigorous brain-region connectivity that kicks in when we hear a laugh, as our brains work to decipher what sort of communication is coming through”.

Laughter is central to relationships. One study found that women laughed 126 per cent more than males, while men initiate laughter the most. “Women typically rate a sense of humour as a top-three trait for a potential mate. Men tend to rate women who laugh a lot (that is, laugh at their jokes) higher than those who don’t. It’s no surprise, then, that couples who laugh together report having higher-quality relationships.”

Laughter has an antidepressant effect. Laughing releases serotonin into the brain. This is the “same brain chemical affected by the most common types of antidepressants, SSRIs . . . the burst of brain activity laughing triggers is undoubtedly potent, at least for short periods of time”. When it comes to mental health, it seems the old saying “Laughter is the best medicine” might hold some degree of truth when it comes to fighting negative emotions in your daily life.

Laughter protects your heart health. “Laughter has an anti-inflammatory effect that protects blood vessels and heart muscles from the damaging effects of cardiovascular disease . . . Regular, hearty laughter should probably be part of every heart disease prevention program.” It really brings new meaning to the benefit of a good hearty laugh.

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Laughing together can help relationships

As reported in The Independent, researcher Laura Kurtz from the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina is one of the first to have looked at what laughter does in relationships. Her study was based on 77 heterosexual couples.

What she found was a huge advantage in “shared laughter” when compared to “solo laughter”.

“There is something unique about shared laughter for a relationship,” she reports. “It isn’t just enough to laugh in the presence of your partner—it’s the moments where you are both laughing together that really seem to count.”

Her researchers discovered that out of 1399 laughs from the couples, 256 were shared laughs. Couples who laughed more together reported feeling closer to and more supported by one another than those who didn’t laugh together.

What surprised her was that when men laughed, it was more likely to create shared laughter. This may suggest that a male partner with a sense of humour can help keep the relationship light-hearted.

Kurtz cautions against faking a laugh to try to improve relationships. “We tend to be pretty good at detecting whether a laugh is genuine or not, so you don’t want to come across as insincere.

“Rather, I would suggest finding ways to put yourself in situations where you might genuinely laugh with your partner [and, for men,] skip the latest action flicks in favour of funny movies. If you prioritise the things in your life that might make you and your partner laugh, I’d say there’s a good chance the behaviour is likely to follow.”

Are you ready for the “laughie”?

Psychologist Freda Gonot-Schoupinsky was searching for a way to prescribe laughter for people who needed to laugh more. The problem, as she described it in her psyche.co article, was, “Telling people to watch 20 or 30 minutes of comedy films a day sounds like a good idea, but it might not always be feasible or result in laughter.”

Knowing that only a minute’s laughter can boost mood, she came up with the “laughie”, which is a “quick and easy way for the medical community to prescribe laughter”.

A laughie is like a selfie, but you create a one-minute video on your smart phone of yourself laughing. You then pull it out to laugh with whenever you feel the need.

While you might laugh at the idea, one study found that “laughing with a laughie three times a day for seven days increased wellbeing by 16 per cent in healthy adults”. They also laughed more with others, slept better and felt more relaxed.

One participant said: “You laugh at life, you laugh at your problems, so it’s gym for the soul.”

Importantly, Gonot-Schoupinsky recognises that “laughter is usually a social activity: we’re 30 times more likely to laugh with others than when we’re alone. But you can laugh when you’re on your own and experience its benefits this way—you just need to get used to the idea.” This is something which the laughter therapy of the laughie aims to help with.

Laughter can help your memory

We began with laughter and babies. At the other end of the spectrum, as we age, there’s a natural memory loss—or perhaps we should call it memory recall loss because we often know “we know” but can’t remember what we know.

Laughing helps.

This was shown in a study from the US that had the catchy title: “The effect of humour on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole person wellness.”

It involved two groups of healthy, older adults in a simple test. Those in one group were asked to watch either of two humorous videos for 20 minutes. The other group sat “calmly” for 20 minutes. They weren’t allowed to read, sleep or talk on their mobile phones.

A series of tests were then used to assess short-term memory, learning ability, delayed recall and visual recognition within both groups. Those who had laughed were way ahead in all areas. It was as if they had laughed their memory—their short-term memory, at least—into action.

This, suggested by the researchers at Loma Linda University, is a by-product of laughter reducing stress and increasing the levels of the hormone cortisol. They recommend that humour should become a part of “programs that support whole-person wellness for older adults” and the development of “positive, enjoyable and beneficial therapies” for age-associated memory difficulties.

We’re born ready to laugh and laughter is a healthy part of life in all its stages. On top of this, there’s the real possibility that you can laugh your way to a healthier you.

 

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Bruce Manners is a retired Signs of the Times editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.