Bertrand Russell, a famous British philosopher, once said, “Laughter is the most inexpensive and most effective wonder drug.”
Medical researchers, who have named the study of laughter “gelotology,” are starting to agree with him. Here are a few reasons why. . .
Even though scientists can’t rigorously explain exactly what makes something funny and what your brain does when you hear a joke, they have come up with an effective way you can use humor to help you build a sharper mind and a better memory.
Now, when it comes to comedy, I know that I can recognize that something is funny even though I may not be able to tell you why. Professional comedy writers will tell you the same thing. (Anyway, as everyone knows, jokes lose their punch when you try to explain them.)
But that’s not good enough for scientists. A group of researchers at the University of British Columbia have argued that it will take the intricacies of quantum mechanics to explain the ins and outs of what makes us laugh.1
And when Professor Liane Gabore explains why she wrote a paper on the subject, she says (with, I assume, a straight face), “Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of (humorous) ambiguity.”
Well, I’ll leave the quantum mechanics to the physicists, even if Prof. Gabore thinks it’s the only way to explain what’s funny.
Instead, to me, the important takeaway from humor research includes findings like the one at Loma Linda University that shows humor can keep your brain in better working order.
The Loma Linda scientists tested the effects of funny videos on 20 people in their 60s and 70s. They found that about half an hour of watching humorous videos (they used recordings of the Red Skelton show and America’s Funniest Home Videos) improved learning ability by 38.5 percent. It also boosted “delayed recall” ability (the ability to remember something after a period of distraction) by more than 43 percent.2
This result leads the Loma Linda researchers to conclude that humor can have “clinical benefits.” They say it should be used to support better memory in older people whose memory may be slipping.
Oh, and the scientists also found that humor, as you might expect, reduces stress. When they measured these folks’ level of cortisol (a stress hormone) during the experiment they discovered it went down significantly.
Laughter’s Health Benefits
A wide range of other studies have also demonstrated how jokes, laughter and funny movies can improve health. . .
- Increase metabolism. A study at Vanderbilt University shows that laughing for 15 minutes burns 40 calories.3 Like an aerobic workout, laughing raises your heart rate and speeds your metabolism.
- Protect the cardiovascular system: Research at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that “mirthful” laughter can reduce inflammation in the arteries and stimulate the release of endorphins that can lead to improved heart health.4
- Help you get along better with other people: Enjoying a good laugh with friends and family improves your relationships which, in turn, can help support your improved health. Scientists studying laughter at the University of North Carolina conclude that shared laughter is an “objective marker of relationship well-being.”5
- Enhance the immune system: A study in Canada shows that humor can help keep the immune system functioning better even when you are seriously stressed.6
Looks to me like getting a good laugh now and then is just about as important as getting exercise and eating a healthy diet.