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Why Do We Laugh?

No Laughing Matter

Laugh Yourself to Better Health?

Many claim that laughter carries health benefits, that it represents all the positive emotions that offset hostility -- which should have positive effects on the immune system.

Provine says he's more skeptical than most -- admitting that among health activists, he's as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. Most research is very limited, he says.

The idea that laughter is therapeutic was popularized by Norman Cousins in his 1976 article, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, and expanded into a book. In it, Cousins describes his affliction with a painful and life-threatening degenerative disease (ankylosing spondylitis) and his successful self-treatment with vitamin C, the Marx Brothers, and episodes from the old television series Candid Camera.

It makes sense that laughter -- like any positive activity -- can affect overall health, Provine admits. But laughter is actually a very violent activity. "Laughter increases your heart rate, but would similar changes be produced by yelling or singing? There may be something unique to laughter, but that research hasn't been done yet."

Baby steps have been made to prove laughter's health benefits, says Margaret Stuber, PhD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. She also is co-director of the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center's Rx Laughter, a nonprofit project dedicated to helping the ill via humor and to supporting more scientific research on laughter.

Stuber has found that when children watched funny videos -- while their hands were in ice water -- they could tolerate pain better, she reports. Why? Children who laughed more assessed the experience as less unpleasant. They also had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Laughing-Impaired Can Get Help

Indeed, helping people change their view of life can lessen anxiety, reduce chronic stress -- adding laughter to their lives, she says.

Parents can teach their kids to see the funny side of life -- simply by seeing it themselves, Stuber says. Therapy can also help change the way you view life.

"We're starting to put puzzle pieces together, starting to see that people can be trained to see the funny side of things," she tells WebMD. "I think it's about learning to view situations as non-threatening or not embarrassing."

One study showed that people who are able to laugh -- rather than being embarrassed or angry in certain situations -- tend to have fewer heart attacks and better blood pressure, says Stuber. "When something happened, like a waiter spilling wine on their sleeve, those who laughed about it had less incidence of second heart attacks," she tells WebMD.

"There's more and more good research being done on the effects of laughter," Stuber says.

Once a psychotherapist, Stephan Wischerth now leads the New York City's Laughter Club. It's just what it sounds like: people get together to laugh, to lose their anxieties in contagious laughter. Among those who attend: someone with Stage 4 cancer, another person with a degenerative nerve disease, people who are really stressed out.

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