Laugh Just for the Health of It

It sounds like something Benjamin Franklin would have said, though it already had biblical roots (see Proverbs 17:22). Patch Adams meted it out in large dosages. Comedian Cocoa Brown claims it saved her life.

Now, some research has indeed proven that “laughter is the best medicine.”

Dr. Jayson Dibble recently presented “Humor: Why Bother?” at Hope College as part of the fifth annual LaughFest

So said Dr. Jayson Dibble, an associate professor of communication at Hope, who gave LaughFest an academic shot in the arm on campus this week when he was given a mic to not so much be funny – though it turns out he’s a pretty punny guy – as to teach about why being funny matters.

It was Dibble’s third year teach-performing for the annually organized event, now in its fifth year, mostly staged in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and stocked with nationally recognizable stand-up and improv artists for 10 days. The event was created to honor the late Gilda Radner as well as to benefit Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, a place where free emotional healthcare is provided to those fighting and smiling through any kind of cancer. LaughFest brings together diverse audiences every March “to honor laughter as an essential part of emotional health and well-being.”

That’s a motto and mission Dibble prescribes to, as well. Besides making us socially, intellectually, and emotionally well, “humor directly changes our physiology,” he says.

Laughter has been proven to relieve muscle tension, help release larger quantities of endorphins – the happy hormone – and it can even mitigate physical pain, according to one study. “But there’s a caveat. Its pain reducing effects occur after your exposure to humor,” said Dibble. “You’re not going to feel great as soon as you fire up Netflix (in order to laugh). You’re going to have to wait a little while.”

“We don’t have to train ourselves to laugh,” says Dibble. “We were all already born with funny bones. We just have to choose to use it.”

Another study Dibble cited showed that humor can lower one’s blood pressure… but only if you’re a woman. “If you’re a guy, not so much. From this correlational study where men and women self-identified themselves with having a good sense of humor, men who thought they were funny guys usually had a Type A personality and higher blood pressure. The women in the study had lower blood pressure levels.”

Really? Why? If laughter is universal, knowing no cultural bounds, shouldn’t it have universally positive effects regardless of gender? Perhaps, but what these researchers posit from this study is that there are gender differences in the ways women and men use their humor and thus there are differences in the ways it affects their blood pressure and stress. “Men, on average, tend to have more aggressive, sarcastic, or “bathroom” humor. Women, on average, use their humor to be more inclusive and accepting,” says Dibble who also teaches about and conducts comparative humor studies between Americans and Brits during a May Term called Humor, Communication,and Culture in Liverpool, England.

As for children, a study shows anxiety levels were lowered for those about to undergo extensive medical procedures when clowns showed up with their parents and doctors in the ER. Without a clown to clown around with, children’s anxiety levels went up.

“Though clowns can creep some people out, like me,” says Dibble, “for most of these kids, clowns made a difference in their health.”

Universal, free, contagious, and widely available, humor and its resulting laughter provide a myriad of positive effects in people and in all animals really. Even healthy chimps love to horse around, and, well, horses do, too.

“We don’t have to train ourselves to laugh,” says Dibble. “We were all already born with funny bones. We just have to choose to use them.”

So, go ahead. Laugh just for the health of it.

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