Give Your Body a Boost -- With Laughter
Why, for some, laughter is the best medicine
The Evidence: Is Laughter the Best Medicine?
But things get murky when researchers try to sort out the full effects of laughter on our minds and bodies. Is laughter really good for you? Can it actually boost your energy? Not everyone is convinced.
"I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon," says Provine, "but the evidence that laughter has health benefits is iffy at best."
He says that most studies of laughter have been small and not well conducted. He also says too many researchers have an obvious bias: they go into the study wanting to prove that laughter has benefits.
For instance, Provine says studies of laughing have often not looked at the effects of other, similar activities. "It's not really clear that the effects of laughing are distinct from screaming," Provine says.
Provine says that the most convincing health benefit he's seen from laughter is its ability to dull pain. Numerous studies of people in pain or discomfort have found that when they laugh they report that their pain doesn't bother them as much.
But Provine believes it's not clear that comedy is necessarily better than another distraction. "It could be that a compelling drama would have the same effect."
One of the biggest problems with laughter research is that it's very difficult to determine cause and effect.
For instance, a study might show that people who laugh more are less likely to be sick. But that might be because people who are healthy have more to laugh about. Or researchers might find that, among a group of people with the same disease, people who laugh more have more energy. But that could be because the people who laugh more have a personality that allows them to cope better.
So it becomes very hard to say if laughter is actually an agent of change, or just a sign of a person's underlying condition.
Laughing It Up for Quality of Life
Laughter, Provine believes, is part of a larger picture. "Laughter is social, so any health benefits might really come from being close with friends and family, and not the laughter itself."
In his own research, Provine has found that we're thirty times more likely to laugh when we're with other people than when we're alone. People who laugh a lot may just have a strong connection to the people around them. That in itself might have health benefits.
Wilson agrees there are limits to what we know about laughter's benefits.
"Laughing more could make you healthier, but we don't know," he tells WebMD. "I certainly wouldn't want people to start laughing more just to avoid dying -- because sooner or later, they'll be disappointed."
But we all know that laughing, being with friends and family, and being happy can make us feel better and give us a boost -- even though studies may not show why.
So Wilson and Provine agree that regardless of whether laughter actually improves your health or boosts your energy, it undeniably improves your quality of life.
"Obviously, I'm not antilaughter," says Provine. "I'm just saying that if we enjoy laughing, isn't that reason enough to laugh? Do you really need a prescription?"