Did you hear the one about how laughter is good medicine?
It’s no joke.
Science confirms that laughing enhances not just mental health but physical health, too.
Just ask Dr. Mariah Stump, an attending physician at Lifespan’s Women’s Medicine Collaborative and a professor and researcher at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
“When you laugh, it helps people work their respiratory system,” Stump told Ocean State Stories. “It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s natural relaxation ‘rest and digest’ system.”
The benefits can be both momentary and lasting, Stump said.
“There's a lot of data on how laughing releases endorphins, which are the ‘happy hormones,’ dopamine and serotonin,” Stump said. “It suppresses the body's stress hormones, like cortisol. And all of those are linked with longevity and an improved immune system.”
Laughter, of course, can be found in many places: in get-togethers with family and friends, in comedy clubs, or watching a funny movie, TV show or cute-pet video. And it can be stimulated – for example, through a Laughter Yoga class from Laughter Yoga International, founded by Dr. Madan Kataria of India, whose work has inspired Stump.
“The brain doesn't actually know if you're laughing at something ‘real,’ like a joke,” Stump said, “or if you're making yourself laugh. In other words, whether the laughter is stimulated or spontaneous, like you just told a really good joke, the benefits are the same whether it's ‘fake laughter,’ if you will, or ‘real laughter,’ which is something that comes very spontaneously when we find something funny.
Rhode Island comedian Joanna Rapoza fits into the ‘real laughter’ category. She elicits it during her performances at venues including The Comedy Park in Cranston, the Mass Arts Center in Mansfield, Mass., and Mohegan Sun in Montville, Conn. Rapoza also performs in banquet halls, bars, and nursing homes, among other places.
“If you read the studies -- and it seems to be confirmed by anecdotal experience -- laughter puts a better spin on life,” Rapoza said in an interview. “It helps. You enjoy the journey a little bit better. It must be working for me, because, knock on wood, I’m considered to be in very good physical health for my age, 61.”
Rapoza said her mental health benefits, too.
“I’m actually quite a serious person for a good portion of the time,” she said. “I manage my lifelong depression, PTSD and anxiety in part by finding ways to authentically laugh at least several times each day, whether it’s inspired by myself or someone else.”
Rapoza’s mental health challenges date to the sudden death of her father when she was a teenager.
“His heart stopped,” she recalled. “He was sleeping.”
Rapoza said her father “had an excellent sense of humor” – but laughter did not immediately help his daughter heal after his passing.
“There's that initial blanket of terrible depression after you lose a loved one and everybody processes it differently,” she said. “But once I kind of came out of the state of shock I was in and I felt good enough to make jokes or laugh just in response to somebody else's joke, it was a great relief. And I relied on searching out things that would make me laugh after that.”
And later, as an adult, making others laugh, too.
Among Dr. Stump’s other responsibilities, she is an adjunct professor with the Mindfulness Center at Brown’s School of Public Health and director of the Concentration of Lifestyle Medicine and Integrative Health at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, a program that seeks to further healing approaches that have not typically been part of traditional medicine.
“Despite the major advances of biomedical science during the 20th century, physicians have become increasingly burdened by the difficulties and challenges of treating chronic illnesses, and patients have grown wary of medicine’s over-reliance on technology and of the potentially harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals and invasive procedures,” the program declares on its website.
“The field of lifestyle medicine is the use of evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic interventions—nutrition/dietary choices, physical movement/exercise, reduction of toxins (substances and environmental), social connectivity/stress reduction and restorative sleep as a primary modality to prevent, treat, and even reverse chronic disease.”
A growing body of research confirms laughter as an effective intervention. One landmark study, “The Laughter Prescription,” published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, proclaimed the benefits:
“Laughter is a normal and natural physiologic response to certain stimuli with widely acknowledged psychological benefits. However, current research is beginning to show that laughter may also have serious positive physiological effects for those who engage in it on a regular basis. Providers who prescribe laughter to their patients in a structured way may be able to use these natural, free, and easily distributable positive benefits.”
The respected Mayo Clinic views laughter in such a positive light that it has devoted a lengthy page to its benefits that concludes:
“Laughter is the best medicine. Go ahead and give it a try. Turn the corners of your mouth up into a smile and then give a laugh, even if it feels a little forced. Once you've had your chuckle, take stock of how you're feeling. Are your muscles a little less tense? Do you feel more relaxed or buoyant? That's the natural wonder of laughing at work.”
Like Joanna Rapoza, fellow Rhode Island comedian Frank O’Donnell, a member of the Rhode Island Comedy Hall of Fame, has experienced deep tragedy. He and his wife, Karen, lost their 15-year-old daughter, Keri Anne, in a car crash in July 2010.
“When her accident happened, I had a lot of people who said that I would never perform again and when I heard them say it, at first I kind of believed them,” O’Donnell told Ocean State Stories. “I was not where I wanted to do anything funny. You're just in a horrible place when something like that happens.
“A little over a month after she passed, I already had a show that was booked down in Matunuck and I called the organizers and I said, ‘listen, I need to replace myself. I can't be in this show.’ And they completely understood. So I hired somebody else to do my job but I decided to take a ride with him just to watch the show, for a little bit of a distraction.
“I watched what they were doing and there was something inside of me that said, ‘you’ve got to get up there’ and I did. They gave me a standing ovation because everybody in the room knew what had happened and it was a great feeling to be able to be funny -- to be able to put away what had happened for, you know, 20 minutes.”
O’Donnell said that Keri, who shared his sense of humor, surely would have approved.
“Had I stopped doing comedy because of what happened,” he said, “she’d have found a way to kick my because it’s therapeutic for me as well as for other people and that’s really important.”
For audiences, O’Donnell said, laughter “is almost like a prescription. When people walk out and they've had a good time and they've got a gigantic smile on their face or they’re just very complimentary, you know, that you've done some good for them. If the comedy is good, you're going to laugh and you're going to feel good. It's a pretty amazing thing.”
Fellow comedian, Classical High School classmate and friend Charlie Hall, the first person elected to the Rhode Island Comedy Hall of Fame, also experienced deep tragedy earlier in his career and was faced with a similar choice about continuing in his profession.
“When I was about 30 years old, my mom passed from a severe heart attack right in front of me,” Hall told Ocean State Stories. “Two days later, I had a comedy show that had been scheduled for months. I decided to go with the ol' ‘the show must go on.’ And for 40 minutes I did my act and forgot about what had happened.
“Now in this case, laughter was my best medicine -- but in most cases, we are the audience’s best medicine. We get them to smile and hopefully it ripples out like a pebble dropped in a lake. I guess you could argue that we laugh-getters provide rubber-chicken soup for the soul.”
Hall added that in his latest show, “Aging Disgracefully,” which he performs with Doreen Collins, another Comedy Hall-of-Famer, “we actually discuss how good laughing is for your health, noting many medical studies -- and that because of this our show qualifies as a doctor's visit. They chuckle, and then we add, 'So we're charging you all a $10 copay.’ It gets big yucks.”
Chris D’Alessandro, a voiceover artist and friend of Joanna Rapoza who lives in Connecticut, has performed stand-up comedy and says that “absolutely the best thing is laughter.” It helps her deal with the tensions and aggravations of daily life and the stress associated with her 80-year-old mother, a nursing home resident who lives with dementia.
Laughter, she said, “gives you an outlet. Whether it’s my situation with my mother or you had a bad day at work, your boss was driving you nuts, I think everybody needs a little bit of laughter. Go to a comedy show, go watch a comedy movie. By doing that, it just takes your mind off whatever happened.”
What motivates her to want to make others laugh, on stage or in daily life?
“You don't know what somebody's going through,” she said. “So I try to make everybody laugh. If there is a moment where I could sit and talk to you or the gas station clerk for two minutes and take their mind off whatever's bothering them -- bad day, bad time, whatever -- and lighten their day, make them laugh a little bit, to me I've done my daily job without pay.”
Next week: Three years after former Gov. Gina Raimondo declared a state of emergency, we reflect on three years of COVID.
Ocean State Stories is a new media outlet based at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center devoted to stories about issues of importance to Rhode Islanders. Story copyright 2023 Salve Regina University. Originally published at OceanStateStories.org
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