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Laughter: The Best Medicine?

A hearty dose of humor could actually improve your family's health – or at least offer a little therapeutic value

Can humor make your family healthier? Medical science is finding that people who are amused enough to actually laugh during illness experience therapeutic value. And in the past few decades, growing evidence has shown many benefits. Hearty laughter can improve health, boost morale and enhance the quality of life. And who doesn't want to be happier?

In fact, the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) was founded in 1987 to educate health care professionals about the use of humor to help heal. Since then, business and education professionals are finding that the appropriate use of humor and laughter can enhance work performance, support learning, or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing.

A growing case for humor

The notion of laughter as healthy dates back to biblical times. Current research indicates that using humor is well accepted by the public – and frequently used as a coping mechanism. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America routinely use therapeutic humor in addition to conventional cancer treatment.

Laughter can boost the immune system and help the heart by relaxing blood vessels. A good guffaw can even lower the levels of cortisol, a hormone that can raise blood pressure. Laughing triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of wellbeing.

"It's like an internal massage," says Angela Mazur of Sterling Heights. "Especially if you laugh hard enough." Mazur should know. She is a Certified Laughter Leader – and says she laughs every time she thinks of her title!

Laugh leaders are a growing group of individuals who lead an estimated 2,000 laughter clubs worldwide. Members of these unique clubs gather regularly to take part in a laughter exercise workout and other activities that encourage playfulness, fun and mental balance. They enjoy social support – as well as physical benefits.

How laughter helps the body

Like a real body massage, laughter can stimulate and relax muscles and reduce stress. In hospital settings, humor therapists may perform magic tricks, tell jokes and short stories, dress as clowns, or perform with puppets. A recent study in Spain of 60 children ages 6 to 10 years scheduled to undergo elective surgery found that kids who were visited by clowns were less anxious before and after the procedure. These results were maintained for one week after discharge from the hospital.

Chronic lung diseases also can benefit from therapeutic humor. Swiss researchers found that adults with obstructive lung disease who were visited by a clown were able to reduce trapped air in their over-inflated lungs after sustained laughter.
Humor therapy is completely safe. Your doctor is likely to approve of any efforts you make to use humor therapy, even if he or she is not aware of specific medical benefits that may result.

C'mon – laugh it up

Because it's inexpensive, risk-free and readily available, there 's little reason not to try practicing humor therapy. Chronic diseases have a negative effect on mood and attitude, which can make the disease worse. Humor therapy helps reduce the negative effects of feeling unhealthy, out of control, afraid or helpless – which are common problems for those with cancer or chronic diseases.

Mazur, who started out as a stand-up comedian, notes that therapeutic humor is not the same as telling jokes. Jokes are highly individual, and not all people will laugh. Rather, Mazur leads her groups in a combination of yoga and laughter techniques.

"We use deep breathing and stretching," she says. Mazur also leads the group in chanting a rhythmic, "Ho-ho! Ha-ha-ha!", which helps to prepare participants for later breathing and laughing exercises. Such techniques can produce a general sense of wellbeing – and even improve sleep.

Skeptics say that the health benefits of laughter are only a coincidence, stemming from a result of bringing people together socially. The health advantages of laughter may simply result from the social support it can stimulate. Whatever the reason for the benefit, though, it can't hurt to put a little more mirth in your day!

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