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Massage Today
March, 2012, Vol. 12, Issue 03

Laughter: It Just Might Be the Best Medicine for You

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT

We have all heard this saying before, and I am sure we have all experienced the "pick-me-up" a good chuckle provides when we are feeling down. However, did this adage become common simply due to parents trying to calm their children when sick or angry? Or, is there a more primal, subconscious reason that we associate laughter with feeling better? It was not until recently, when I ran into an acquaintance of mine who has always had a rather serious disposition, that I started thinking more deeply about laughter.

I am sure we all know someone like him, the kind of person of whom we say to ourselves, "He/she needs to laugh more." Therefore, I started to wonder what research, if any, has been done on laughter, and what can we learn from it. After all, when was the last time you read or saw a press release about the latest findings from a NSF or NIH sponsored grant on the benefits of laughing? Probably never, since most people are more interested in research pertaining to cancer, tobacco or AIDS, then on laughter.

As it turns out, the science of laughter is still in its infancy, however what we have recently learned about it is fascinating. In fact, just ten years ago, I would not have had much to say other than the following: We know laughter is an evolutionary vocalization passed down from our primate relatives in order to aid in social communication, and it also seems to be contagious. While we have proven the former to be true by studying the behavior and vocalizations of our primate relatives, thanks to modern science we have also proven the latter to be true. In 2006, researchers at University College London conducted a study to determine why observing laughter usually causes someone to laugh in return.

laughing couples - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Using MRI images of the brain, they were able to prove the existence of auditory "mirror" neurons; neurons that cause our body to produce a reaction to something we hear. Just as we have visual "mirror" neurons that activate when we see certain things (when we watch traumatic events, our brain responds as if we are experiencing that event ourselves), our auditory mirror neurons trigger our facial muscles to smile in response to hearing laughter. In fact, the more laughter we hear the more signals our neurons fire, causing us to smile and laugh in return. So whomever first coined the phrase, "Laugh, and the world laughs with you," turned out to be absolutely correct!

What about the theory that laughter is the best medicine? While I cannot assure you that laughter can cure all ills, I can say that it does indeed make you feel better. This past fall, a new study was published addressing this very issue. A group of European scientists studied the pain threshold of people before, during and after watching funny programs, such as a stand-up comedian show and episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Friends." The results revealed that people who laughed during these programs (not just listened to them, but actually laughed) had a much higher tolerance for pain after laughing than before, because laughter triggered the release of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals which protect us from stress and make us feel good; as you well know, the biological reason massage feels so good is because it, too, releases endorphins. Therefore, while laughter may not be the best medicine, it really does make you feel better. Since it is also contagious and innate in primates, I can understand why laughter is considered one of the most primal methods of social bonding.

Now that we have proven that those serious people would indeed feel better if they laughed more, how can we, as massage therapists, incorporate more laughter into our days? I think the answer to that question will vary according to our own personal preferences. Some of us would rather reserve humor, jokes and irony for our personal lives only, and others will feel more comfortable incorporating laughter into both our professional and personal lives. Robert Provine authored a book on the science of laughter and in it suggests creating a "library" of humor. Start a collection of your favorite funny materials (books, comics, magazine, movies, TV shows, toys, etc), and make them easily accessible in your home or workplace. If you train yourself to reach for them when you start to feel angry or sad, you will notice those negative feelings diminish faster. This "library" is also a great conversation starter for parties and social gatherings, since everyone likes to laugh! Making some of these materials available to clients might help some of them relax more quickly before a session and feel more comfortable. If you choose to share this library with others, just make sure you have materials that represent a variety of humor, since we all find different things funny.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of information available on the internet and in magazines on how to incorporate laughter into your life; I have started listening to funny books and programs on CD while driving, and I can tell you that getting stuck in traffic no longer bothers me the way it used to! In closing, I’d like to remind the reader that just like massage, laughter does not require anything other than your own body in order to make yourself and someone else feel good, so try to do it as often as you can!

Click here for more information about Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT.


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