Sometimes, in life and in medicine, we can know something is good for us even before we fully understand why. Consider laughter and these timeworn quotes:
- “Laughter is a bodily exercise, precious to health.” – Aristotle
- “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” – The Bible
- “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” – Lord Byron
Even without a full understanding of the neurophysiology behind laughter, or a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial proving statistical benefit, we’ve known for centuries that laughter is good for us. Plus, most of us have personal, anecdotal evidence. Can you remember the last time you had a hearty laugh—maybe one that had you in tears or doubled over trying to catch your breath? Didn’t you feel great afterward?
Benefits to Physical Health
In the centuries that have passed since the quotes above were written, we’ve come to understand more of the physiology behind the health benefits of humor. Several studies have shown that laughter provides medical benefits, including lowering blood pressure and increasing glucose tolerance. Humor can also decrease circulating levels of stress hormones (eg, cortisol, epinephrine) and increase pain tolerance to both acute and chronic pain.
It turns out that laughter is also good for the heart, and not just figuratively speaking. Dr. Michael Miller, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, notes that “heightened stress magnifies the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes,” but that “having a good sense of humor is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety,” potentially preventing those adverse outcomes. In addition, Dr. Miller’s research has shown that laughter may cause vascular endothelial cells to release nitric oxide, which can promote smooth muscle relaxation (ie, vessel dilation) and reduce blood pressure as well as decrease inflammation. For these reasons, Dr. Miller prescribes his patients “one good belly laugh a day,” and some advocate that hearty laughter should be an integral part of heart disease prevention programs.
Benefits to Mental Health
Concerning mental health, Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, posited that humor might be the “highest of the psyche’s defense processes” and could be used to decrease anxiety. Laughter may also have effects similar to those of antidepressants, with preliminary research showing that laughing activates the release of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter targeted by the most common type of antidepressant, SSRIs.
Laughter can also trigger the release of endorphins, with both euphoric and calming effects. While endorphins—which reduce pain, boost pleasure, and promote a general sense of well-being—are beneficial for mental health in general, they can be especially helpful when dealing with tragedy or trauma. Speaking to The New York Times about laughter’s therapeutic merits during the global pandemic, Dr. Miller asserted that humor is “not just a distraction from the grim reality of the crisis” but “a winning strategy to stay healthy in the face of it.” Other professionals share this view. George Bonanno, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University, says that having a sense of humor “helps people remain resilient in the face of adverse circumstances.”
Benefits to Social Well-being
It’s no secret that humans are social beings, and social laughter is a recipe for healthy group dynamics. It is good for the soul, makes for pleasant company, and is an essential component of building and maintaining bonds in relationships. One study in the elderly showed that laughter therapy in the form of stand-up comedy improved participants’ sociability and activity. Social laughter brings us closer and even informs attraction between people, with women favorably rating men who had a good sense of humor and men favorably ranking women who laughed at their jokes.
Laughter also increases happiness and intimacy in relationships, making bonds stronger and less susceptible to negative feelings. Although certainly multifactorial, these benefits are due at least in part to the endogenous opioid release that occurs with social laughter. As human beings, making connections and having regular interactions are necessary to living in harmony with one another within our shared communities. That’s why developing a good sense of humor can improve our outlook on life, social standing, and relationships.
More Laughter in Your Life
As past and ongoing studies reveal, laughter can be a healthy habit to help you manage stress, uplift your mood, and positively shift your attitude, energy, and overall health. Especially for medical trainees and professionals—who face intense schedules, seemingly constant demands, and high levels of circulating stress hormones—laughter may be especially beneficial.
So here’s our prescription for you: give yourself permission to watch a comedy clip, share a joke with a friend, or chuckle along to a classic laughing record. Laugh more, stress less.
We hope you’ve found this article on laughter as medicine helpful and will apply some of its insights to managing your medical school stress. We also invite you to check out some of our other lifestyle tips for remaining healthy during medical school.