1.6 Laughter Doubts

Key takeaway:

  • Until the late 1980s, to argue that laughter had any health benefits was to make a claim without evidence.
  • By and large, the medical community still considers the “science of laughter” weak, little more than anecdotal, and not yet ready for prime time. (Read on to learn what to do about that!)

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It’s good to be enthusiastic about laughter, but know if you are, that all will not share your enthusiasm, and that’s OK.

I wrote this page to help you understand what you are against and how to adapt best to what you say to others.

The Bad News: We Have Mixed Feelings About Laughter

Until the late 19th Century, the prevailing attitude regarding laughter was negative, as if Proverb 17:22 was an error in the text: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Church dogma suggested laughter was detrimental to spiritual well-being, and many commonly considered it impolite and sinful. Freud himself placed humor beside neurotic and psychotic disorders as basic adaptation mechanisms to human suffering, with the essential difference that humor alone is not pathological.

Our relationship with laughter has changed tremendously towards the end of the 20th Century thanks to pioneers such as Norman Cousins, Dr. Annette Goodheart, and many others but old doubts have proven remarkably resilient. We still have mixed feelings about it. Is it beneficial or childish? Is it therapeutic or trivial? Is it helpful or irrelevant?

Did You Know?

Until the late 1980s, to argue that laughter had any health benefits was to make a claim without evidence. No one had investigated the matter because the medical community held that the human nervous system was entirely cut off from the immune system. This bias was only credibly challenged once the new field of psychoneuroimmunology established itself.

As a result, the first formal academic research on the health benefits of laughter didn’t happen until 1988. Here is its conclusion, in simple words: “For the most part, when you go and get medical treatment, a clinician is not necessarily going to tell you to take two aspirins and watch Laurel and Hardy, but the reality is that’s where we are, and it’s more real than ever. There’s a real science to this. And it’s as real as taking a drug.” – Lee Berk, DrPH, Assoc Res Pro Loma Linda School of Medicine.

By and large, the medical community still considers the “science of laughter” weak, little more than anecdotal, and not yet ready for prime time. Hundreds of laughter studies may have been done over the past three decades, but:

Most are unrelated to one another, and none was ever replicated. This makes their findings exciting and an indication of what could be, but nothing more and certainly not a universal truth or a guarantee of results.

The only comparable aspect in all of them is the word “laughter.” There is no consistent definition of what that word means or what was studied. If you don’t know that – and most often we don’t – it’s like claiming that all vegetables are good for the eyes because numerous studies on carrots have shown that they are good for eye health, and carrots are a vegetable. You can’t do that, and it seems obvious, but it’s the same with laughter.

  • How much of the laughter studied was spontaneous vs. simulated? (Those two use and stimulate a different circuitry in the brain , and that produces different results.)
  • Which variable(s) were being observed, following which definition of laughter?
  • What role did the facilitator and their ability to facilitate and motivate people (or not) play in the study?
  • It could be even more radical: What if the science of laughter was describing the impact not so much of laughter but that of the biology of belief and how our bodies change as we change our thoughts, or that maybe it was the decision itself to participate in a laughter study and its anticipation that produced most of the benefits described? We don’t know.

The Good News: Laughter Is A Valid Therapeutic Ally In Healing

Everything changes when you stop claiming that laughter is the best medicine (which nobody can currently prove anyway.)

Laughter cannot heal nor solve anything but used well, but it can help to heal and dissolve everything. Regardless of what the skeptics may claim, there is now enough data and empirical evidence to support what is experientially evident — laughter is a valid therapeutic ally in healing and complementary to other established therapeutic strategies. It’s not designed to replace but rather work alongside the world of medicine.

Laughter is a form of good stress, also known as Eustress. (This is a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. It is defined as stress that is healthy or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feelings.)

What makes laughter attractive is that it is universally well tolerated. Unlike other therapies, which are more time-consuming, committed, or expensive, laughter-based programs are easy to implement and require no particular space, equipment, or clothing.

Why Laughter Is Considered A Form Of Lifestyle Medicine

To understand why laughter is considered a type of lifestyle medicine, you first need to understand the two primary viewpoints on the origins of disease that form the basis of contemporary Western medicine.

Germ theory, proposed by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the late 19th century, posits that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. According to this theory, these pathogens invade the host organism, multiply, and produce symptoms of illness. The germ theory has been the foundation of modern medicine and has led to the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and hygiene practices to prevent and treat infectious diseases.

On the other hand, the stress theory of disease, which gained prominence in the mid-20th century, emphasizes the role of psychological, social, and environmental factors in causing illness. According to this theory, stress can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases. Chronic stress can also lead to the development of non-infectious diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and mental disorders. The stress theory has contributed to the growth of preventive medicine, focusing on lifestyle changes and stress management techniques to maintain health and well-being.

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Here is a review of four commonly stated scientific “facts” about laughter that are pseudo-science. Don’t repeat everything you hear!

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