We all seem to think that laughter is good for us, but the medical community isn’t so sure yet. Even though Norman Cousins detailed his journey from illness to health in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient over 30 years ago, there remains little objective scientific proof that laughter and a strong spirit can heal the body.
It was thus with great interest I read a research article looking at formal laughter therapy in patients awaiting organ transplantation. This particular group of patients was selected for the research study, in part because they have both significant physical challenges and a strong risk of psychological distress. The study was carried out at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The researchers decided to look at the effect laughter yoga had on this group of patients. One of the key outcome variables that the researchers looked at in order to determine whether or not laughter yoga was helpful was the patient’s heart rate variability. The heart rate variability is an important prognostic indicator of overall health, with a low heart rate variability being associated with worse health, and a high heart rate variability being associated with better health.
There were six patients who participated in this study. Each person had their heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure, and mood assessed before and after the yoga therapy sessions. These variables were also measured at the start of the research study, after a no-treatment control week, and finally at the end of the study.
The laughter sessions were 20 minutes long, and involved breathing, stretching exercises, chanting, clapping, meditation, and simulated laughter (laughter that is not dependent upon the environment). The control intervention involved a discussion on health topics with one of the researchers.
The result? The patients in the study showed an improvement in both their mood and their heart rate variability after laughter therapy. Although this was a small, pilot study, the researchers concluded that their results are promising, and may indicate that laughter therapy may work in part by increasing the heart rate variability.
This is fascinating research because it suggests in a scientific manner that laughter therapy isn’t just mumbo-jumbo new age gobbly gook. It isn’t just in your head, it’s also in your heart. Why would this be so? Probably because laughter increases blood flow throughout the body, and at the same time the act of laughing exercises the nerves and muscles that control our heart rate.
The lesson here seems to be that laughter should be taken seriously. Laugh when you can, even (or especially) at bad jokes. Better yet, don’t wait for a joke, just laugh at life for your own good. Even when great physical challenges are faced, sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.