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. Here is what to say.
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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 what you say to others.
The Bad News
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, nor what exactly 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
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 a complementary option to other established therapeutic strategies. It’s not designed to replace but rather work alongside the world of medicine.
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.
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Here is a review of commonly stated scientific “facts” about laughter that are pseudo-science. Don’t repeat everything you hear!
Adults laughed an average of 18 minutes 40 years ago, and today, only 6 minutes.
In 1983 a man called Josef Scheppach wrote an article dealing with the phenomenon of laughter. That article was published in P.M., a (popular) scientific magazine of the time. He included the following made-up statement that only served to illustrate his topic: “It’s not ridiculous: we Germans lose our humor! We laugh for only 6 minutes a day. Forty years ago, it was what, 18 minutes? And that was in a time which was in every respect less funny!”
Two years later, Dr. Michael Titze, a German psychotherapist and pioneer in the world of therapeutic humor, mentioned this statement of Scheppach in a short sentence in a book dealing with humor in psychotherapy. In the following years, countless journalists cited his quotation of Scheppach’s statement as if it was a scientifically validated research. (Eventually, even the London Times published it.)
Children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, and adults only 17.5
For the children: If it were true, those awake 12 hours per day would laugh at least once every 1-2 minutes from sunrise till sunset.
For the adults: Studies are limited and inconsistent. One research does suggest that adults laugh an average of 17.5 times per day (Martin RA, Kuiper NA. Daily occurrence of laughter: Relationships with age, gender, and Type A personality. Humor: International Journal Of Humor Research 1999; 12 (4): 355-84.)
Both adults and children laugh primarily during social interactions with others. Consequently, the frequency of laughter at any age depends on how much time an individual spends interacting with others.
It takes more muscles to frown than to smile.
While there is no scientific basis for such claims (technically, you need 12 muscles to do a genuine smile and 11 to frown, but even those numbers are arguable), such sayings convey an important message: smiling makes us feel happier. It is not a cure-all for every situation (that is, don’t look to it to remedy overwhelming grief), but in terms of getting us past a small dose of the blues, it can help to lift the sense of sadness being experienced.
One minute of laughter gives you the same benefits as 10 minutes on a rowing machine.
This claim appears to have been initiated in 1969 by a journalist who interviewed Dr. William Fry, a then-leading researcher in the psychology of laughter at Stanford University (emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences). In that interview, Dr. Fry claimed that the body gets a healthy “mini-workout” from a good guffaw. When asked to elaborate, he told the journalist that it took ten minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach the level it would after just one minute of hearty laughter. The journalist took this data at face value as an accepted scientific fact and chose not to mention the size of the research sample in his article that went viral: one person.
If you want to quote something about Dr. William Fry of Stanford University, then say that he found out that laughing 200 times can burn as many calories as rowing intensely for 10 minutes, boosting your energy and giving you that alive feeling.