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The Healing Value of Fun

by David Spero, RN

Japanese researchers have also documented the healing power of humor and laughter in rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune inflammatory disease. Twenty-six people with the disorder listened to an hour of rakugo, traditional Japanese comic stories. As the participants’ mood improved, their level of pain diminished. Moreover, their cortisol levels dropped, suggesting a reduction in stress; and their levels of interleukin-6 and interferon-gamma, indicators of inflammation, also fell. This means that the disease essentially “turned off” during the rakugo. It remained subdued for at least 12 hours afterward.

Laughter and good humor provide astonishing health benefits in other conditions as well. Researchers led by Lee Berk at Loma Linda University in California studied 48 people who had had a heart attack. Throughout the yearlong study, all participants received standard cardiac care, but half of them were instructed to watch humor videos of their choice for 30 minutes each day. Both groups had lab tests and EKGs (a test of heart function) twice a month. At the end of the study, the humor group had lower blood pressure and fewer arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and required less cardiac medication. Moreover, while 10 people in the standard care group later had second heart attacks, only two in the humor group did.

More significant for people with diabetes, the humor group had greatly reduced levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Cortisol is associated with increased insulin resistance, while epinephrine stimulates the liver to release more glucose. While there are no specific studies yet on the effects of humor on diabetes, lowering stress is known to improve blood glucose control and provide other psychological and physical benefits.

The best medicine
However you do it, having fun benefits you on many levels. Here are a few of the ways good humor helps:

Laughter. Mirthful laughter is thought to have numerous health benefits. When we laugh heartily, we breathe deeply and exercise our chest muscles, momentarily raising our heart rate and improving blood flow to the heart. Laughter provides a gentle form of exercise that relaxes tense muscles and flexes less commonly used ones. It also reduces stress, boosts immune system function in several ways, and improves breathing by opening tight airways. It’s thought that laughter may even help cure snoring by improving the muscle tone of the palate and throat.

It’s interesting to ask how laughter evolved and why it is good for us. Some biologists think that laughter is our species’ way of indicating that a situation isn’t serious, as in, “Yes, I fell, but I’m OK (Ha, ha). Keep chasing that mammoth.” So laughter tells us that everything is all right and enables us to relax and keep on keeping on.

Social connection. Sharing moments of fun can bring us closer to other people, and social support is powerful medicine. Many fun activities, such as games or excursions, involve partners or groups of people and provide opportunities to make new friends or keep up old relationships. If we like having fun, other people will like being around us.

Forgetting our troubles. Our problems and the world’s can wear us down. When problems pile up, our stress levels go up, too. Life seems bleak, and self-care starts to become more trouble than it’s worth. Working some pleasure into each day gives us a break from worries and problems and gives us more energy and clarity to deal with them.

Absorption in the moment. Fun can be a form of meditation. When we’re doing something we enjoy, we forget both the past and the future and pay attention to the moment. Living in the moment reduces stress and helps us appreciate life more. In India, a Dr. Madan Kataria started a popular and now worldwide practice called yogic laughter, a form of meditation based on group laughing exercises. But we don’t need a formal spiritual practice or a laughter club to give full attention to what we’re actually doing. Whether we’re playing basketball or watching a sunset, getting lost in the moment is one of the healing dimensions of fun.

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