In 1964, journalist Norman Cousins’ doctor told him he had a 1 in 500 chance of recovering from a severe illness. Always the optimist, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He watched funny TV shows, and set up a projector so that he could watch comedies on a daily basis.
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” said Cousins. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
Cousins completely recovered from the illness—a combination of two very painful conditions, collagen disease and ankylosing spondylitis. He later outlived his heart disease diagnosis by many years using the same approach.
More recently, science is proving he was right. Laughter can make your pain go down and even cure you.
Here are five ways this happens.
- Stress reduction
As we know, stress is bad for your health. If you’re already fighting chronic illness, it’s that much worse. So, if laughter brings it down, that’s a good thing.
And it does.
In a recent study, people watched a one hour comedic video. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol were lower than those who didn’t get to watch the show. And a review of psychiatric literature showed that laughing helps people cope with stressful situations better.
In fact, a Korean study found that laughter increases natural serotonin levels. This is the brain chemical that antidepressants target.
- Disease prevention and reduction
Laughter can change your body’s response to disease. In one recent study, participants who watched a funny one hour video had higher levels of natural killer cell activity than those who didn’t watch it. These cells help prevent growth of cancerous tumors, HIV and microbial infections.
In another study, college students watched a funny movie. Their levels of the body’s frontline defense against disease, IgA, were higher than those who didn’t watch it.
Laughing also makes your blood pressure and heart rate go up and down, which improves your cardiovascular health and gives you a relaxed feeling.
- Pain reduction
Several studies have found laughing improves pain tolerance. In one, people who watched a funny movie could tolerate a painful stimulus better than those who watched a serious one.
This could be because laughing is a natural painkiller. In one study, people who watched comedy clips for half an hour got a measurable kick of our body’s natural painkiller, opioids, in their brains.
Laughter has also been shown to make your muscles relax, which can both reduce stress and take your pain down—especially if you have a condition that causes painful muscle spasms.
- Better connections with others
One of the hardest things about chronic illness is that it’s isolating. And this is bad for your health. Laughter can counteract this by bringing you closer to friends and family.
One study put groups of close friends together and had them watch either comedy clips or dramas. The group that watched comedies had a higher pain threshold than the ones watching the dramas. The authors believe this shows that people are designed to get together in groups and laugh together.
This could also help explain why laughter is contagious.
- It’s a form of exercise
A good belly laugh gets your heart pumping and uses a number of muscles. A group of older adults who had laughter added to their exercise program had better outcomes than those who didn’t.
In another study, college students were separated into two groups. One group watched funny videos. The other watched dry and boring ones. The group that watched the funny videos were able to exercise with less pain and strain than the other group.
So, there you have it. Laughter really is the best medicine. And unlike in Cousins’ day, we have our pick of comedy shows and clips.
YouTube is a treasure trove of funny show clips and stand up (here are my top 10 picks, but that’s just the tip of a massive iceberg). And of course streaming channels like Netflix are chock full of funny stuff—from stand up specials to sitcoms and comedies.
Or try an app like Laugh My App Off, which gives you a daily dose of jokes, memes and riddles.
If you’re up to it, why not try laughter yoga?
Whatever you choose, make laughter a part of your life. No matter how much you’re struggling, it can help and may even make you healthier.