Is laughter really the best medicine?

September 4, 2018

We know that it's fun to share a good laugh, and we also know the saying 'laughter is the best medicine'. Wouldn't it be good though if it were true, evidenced with a bit of science?

 

I did a bit of rigorous, academic and scientific research into the origins of the saying (thanks Google). I fully expected it to be from some early 20th Century star, Chaplin, Keaton or Lucille Ball perhaps, but it turns out to be older, and more biblical. 

 

Proverbs 17:22.   'A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.'

 

It's not word for word, but it's close enough.

 

There have been a few studies looking at the positive health benefits of laughter, and later in the article you'll see a couple of links to carry-on (no pun intended) the conversation. Here though, are some of the physical highlights:

 

Laughter burns calories: ok, not millions, but every little helps.

Laughter relaxes:  it relieves stresses and leaves muscles feeling relaxed for up to an hour after a good laugh.

Laughter is good for the heart:  It increases blood flow helping protect the heart.

Laughter boosts the immune system:  It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells.

Laughter releases endorphins:  Endorphins are the natural feel good chemical and increase your sense of well-being.

 

In addition to the physical benefits, laughter also improves mental well-being through improving mood, building relationships, diffusing conflict and improving team spirit.

 

No surprises so far, so why am I writing about it today?

 

It's World Alzheimer's Month, and I wanted to highlight an Australian study which evidenced a decrease in agitation similar to that achieved through mainstream chemical medication.

 

A study led by Jean-Paul-Bell, pioneer of the Australian 'Clown Doctors', a 20 year + programme of humour therapy in children's hospitals, looked at the effects of humour on people living with a dementia in 2011.

 

(slight diversion... the original clown doctor was Patch Adams from the US, whose life was captured by Robin Williams in the 1998 film of the same name)

 

The study focussed on nearly 400 residents across 35 care homes in the Sydney area. All the residents had been living in their environments for at least 3 months, so were 'settled' in their surroundings and none were considered to be approaching the end of their life or suffering from severe psychosis.

 

Weekly sessions were facilitated by 'ElderClowns' who used visual and verbal humour to engage and raise spirits with laughter. Regular staff were partnered so they could continue the approach between sessions.

 

 The wonderful Tommy Cooper. Photo courtesy of www.english-heritage.org.uk

 

 

It's not a silver bullet, but the following was observed:

 

Mood, quality of life, social engagement and agitation were assessed and measured before the study, at the end of the three-month programme, and 26 weeks after the programme started.

 

Mood and quality of life results remained fairly static, but social engagement improved and agitation levels lowered during the programme. In addition, the level of agitation remained lower at the 26 week point (13 weeks after the end of the sessions). 

 

We need more research, but while the use of humour as a therapy intuitively feels right, it's good to see some studies adding evidence to back this up. Laughter Yoga is on the increase as a therapy used in care settings, and this approach to positive life-affirming approaches to care are absolutely the right way to go.

 

If academic research is your thing, you can follow this link to learn more about the Australian study.

In the US there's a Laughter Online University with some interesting stuff on, such as an article on laughter and dementia, which you can read here

 photo courtesy of www.silent london.co.uk

 

So, whether you work in social care or not, remember the importance of humour. Enjoy this little video for yourself, or maybe start your next meeting with it? It's 3 minutes and 40 seconds of pure class, and nearly 100 years old! They must have had a real blast making it.

 

Thanks for reading & share away folks.

 

Jeremy 

 

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