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Laughter and humor can improve quality of life

By Mary Pettigrew

Identify the “power of laughter and ‘gallows humor’ to let go of stress in times of crisis.” 
– Sigmund Freud

More than likely, all of us have heard or uttered the phrase, “laughter is the best medicine,” right? I’d be surprised to hear otherwise. I’m sure there are many who might find this phrase lackluster, trite, or even irritating because of overuse. This expression has been in existence for a very long time, which made me wonder just how, when, where, and why it came to be. So, I decided to do a little digging into the history and origin and who said it first. 

Well, according to multiple sources, the saying “laughter is the best medicine” is thought to have originated from the Bible. Proverbs 17:22 says “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” The wording may have changed since biblical times, but the meaning and intent are the same. Medical and spiritual experts have long supported and promoted the power of laughter to share joy with others, improve health, overall wellness and perhaps live a longer life. 

Yes, “laughter is the best medicine” is cliché and the phrase has likely lost some of the oomph it once had, but when you consider the origin as well as the science, research, and ongoing practice of humor and laughter, you may find it thought provoking and relevant to this day. The health benefits of laughter and humor are proven. The studies show how it can and does improve our health, and that’s no joke.

Many MS resources place focus on the ways and means to achieve or improve our overall wellness. Magazines, blogs, videos, and social media posts feature lifestyle tips and tools for better health and stress management for people with MS. I find these resources valuable and believe they can help, but I’ve notice very few elaborate on the benefits of humor and laughter.

First and foremost, I know living with MS is no laughing matter. MS can create a whirlwind of life altering issues (i.e., cognitive/physical dysfunction, pain, anxiety, depression, anger, and frustration). These issues are real. We own them and we deserve to feel and express them. For more than 20 years, I’ve been a passenger on this MS rollercoaster myself. But there always comes a time when I’ve had enough, and I need to find a way to get off the ride – even if only temporary. This is when I turn towards humor to take me to that good place. A laugh can do the trick most every time.

Health benefits of Laughter and Humor:
Physical benefits:
  • Boosts immune system
  • Lowers stress hormones (cortisol)
  • Increases oxygen uptake 
  • Decreases/manages pain 
  • Relaxes muscles and facial tension
  • Improves heart functions (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.) 

Mental benefits: 
  • Brings joy, happiness
  • Lessens anxiety, tension, and stress
  • Improves mood
  • Strengthens resilience

Social Benefits:
  • Improves relationships
  • Enhances social interaction/bonding
  • Reduces/difuses conflict
  • Promotes widespread positivity 
I live alone and still find a way to laugh out loud as often as possible. I like to watch a lot of sketch comedy, films, TV, videos, Zoom or phone chat with friends, play with my silly pup, and more. I’ve also found being able to laugh at myself can be both funny, humbling, even empathetic. If the timing is right, it’s also fun to share some of the wonky stories or funny foibles from living with MS. It’s important to know your audience though – especially when using social media. Some people are happy to engage and will giggle right along with you because they “get it.” However, there will be others who are struggling and are unable to see the humor. It’s important to respect this.

So, maybe you’re not in the mood to laugh. Is it possible to simulate or create forced laughter? The answer is ‘yes.’ Take a look into Laughter Yoga. Discovered in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, Laughter Yoga involves movement and breathing exercises to promote deliberate laughter. Laughter therapy has been used for many years, but when Dr. Katari incorporated yoga and laughter together, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, well received and continues to be used as therapeutic fun throughout the world. Whether you are interested in joining in a group class (per pandemic safety guidelines of course), virtual sessions, impromptu gatherings, or by yourself, take a look at the website and various links on YouTube to see what it’s all about. Do yourself a favor and learn more about this hilariously healthy lifestyle trend. Watch a few of the Laughter Yoga videos on YouTube. I guarantee you’ll find yourself laughing out loud or at least make you smile! To view one of my favorite Laughter Yoga sessions.

It’s interesting to explore the history of comedy and tragedy in theater and how the two emotions can intertwine. Since Greek mythology, the happy and sad masks have represented emotions in playwrighting and other creative arts. It’s interesting to think about how some of the most famous comedic actors and comediennes have come from some sort of tragedy in their lives (i.e., abuse, pain, chronic illness, etc.). Robin Williams once said, “Every time you get depressed, comedy will be there to drag your ass out of it.” I recently read an excellent article in The Guardian about comics standing up for mental health. To paraphrase one of the writer’s comments in that piece, maybe some comics and other people who use comedy as a defense mechanism or a way to cope in life are (just more cognizant of the bad stuff in the world and have the outlet to talk about it). Laugh and the world laughs with you.