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Laughter may increase physical and emotion well-being

The Comedy Corner at the University of Arizona perform its improv sketch for a crowd of 50 at the Cellar restaurant on March 8, 2017. (Photo by: Ross Olson / Arizona Sonoran News Service)

The question of whether laughter is truly the best medicine for physical and psychological ailments has floated around the public for years. People have wondered if humor is a valid remedy when enduring trauma — and they may have reason to believe in its effectiveness.

According to a 2014 study conducted by Barbara Butler, a science librarian for the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Oregon, a positive emotional state may increase pain tolerance, enhance immunity and undo cardiovascular consequences of negative emotions.

Butler also concluded that using humor as a coping strategy may benefit physical health indirectly by moderating adverse effects of stress. William Fry, a psychology professor at Stanford University and one of the first scientists to suggest studying the effects of laughter, revealed in Butler’s study that humor and mirth contribute positively to maintaining health from a physiological standpoint.

In terms of cardiovascular benefits, Megan Robbins, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, said laughter reduces arterial stiffness while also providing exercise to ab muscles and others. Butler confirmed Robbins’ assertion of contributions to exercise by revealing that laughing out loud 20 times produces a cardiovascular workout similar to three minutes of work on a rowing machine.

Robbins contributed to a project done by Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, called E.A.R, an acronym that stands for “Electronic Activated Recorder.” The E.A.R is a device designed to record ambient sound and observe social interactions.

According to Robbins, a recent study that utilized the E.A.R to observe the behavior of breast-cancer patients discovered a strong link between humor and emotional well-being.

“Regular laughter was associated with lower levels of depression and higher levels of positive affect and emotion,” Robbins said. “New evidence has shown that laughter — typically with other people — has been regarded as a successful coping strategy.”

Robbins also brought up the notion of the benefits of humor at the expense of oneself.

Another study conducted Suzanne M. Skevington and Alison White of the School of Sciences at the University of Bath and Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases shared that humor used in an anxiety-provoking situation can represent an attempt to recapture past feelings of control and pleasure.

The study proceeds to reveal that humor is a state of mind, in which a person senses a form of invulnerability and thus conquers any fears or threat. This allows people’s integrity to remain protected if they suffer from a fragile self-esteem. It is used by those with the need to build their self-confidence.

The study noted how humor in groups can help elicit information from others regarding shared anxiety.

A sense of humor can also cognitively restructure negative emotions. The authors believe many circumstances that we commonly experience as depressing, annoying or painful, can be just as legitimately experienced as amusing or ludicrous.

The study notes how its purpose is not to devalue that person’s suffering, but to help them see that they are capable of coming to terms with their problems by perceiving their own absurdity in a given situation.

The Comedy Corner club at the UA knows a thing or two about humor. The improv club performs once a week on campus and competes in comedy competitions around the country. The club’s last performance drew a crowd of 50 students who erupted with laughter at every opportunity possible.

Comedy Corner club member Rebecca Wendler said that frequently being around humorous people has generally made her a happier person.

“I genuinely think laughing does equate to happiness more often than not because I’m surrounded by funny people all the time and they always make me laugh and it’s always because I’m happy,” Wendler said. “Humor really helps me get past bad times because I kind of use humor as a coping mechanism.”

Humor even helped Wendler get past a difficult physical time in her life when she spent substantial amount of time in the hospital.

“When I was a sophomore, I was in the hospital for a week and I couldn’t eat anything,” Wendler said. “My dad is where I got my comedic sense from, and every time he came and tried to cheer me up, I would kind of forget about the pain I was in and just laugh for a bit.”

Ross Olson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at rossolson@email.arizona.edu