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A Good Laugh, Good for Your Health - 2003-04-16


Over the years, clinical studies have confirmed the wisdom of the saying, "Laughter is the best medicine." Hearty laughter has been shown to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, and improve the mood of others around us. And now a study shows it may not even take a funny story or a silly face to produce the benefits of a good laugh.

Sadie Delany, one of two New York sisters who lived past age 100 and wrote a book about their lives, said "Life is short, and it's up to us to make it sweet." That quote stuck with Charles Schaefer, a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey. He had already written about love, happiness, and play therapy as the road to positive life changes. And he had read several studies showing the therapeutic effects of laughter.

But it was always laughter induced by humor, like a clown's antics or a comedian's routine. What would happen, he wondered, if you made yourself laugh, for no apparent reason? Not a tasteful chuckle. A long, deep belly laugh. So he put the idea to the test with his students. "We had them laugh hysterically for a minute," said Mr. Schaefer. "They rated their mood before and after this experiment. And we found, kind of to our surprise, that it did elevate their mood, much as the literature shows that humor-induced laughter cheers people up."

So far so good. But many questions remained. Was it the surreal scene, a classroom full of young adults, laughing uproariously, that made people feel better? Or was it the physical act of laughing itself? Would a more subtle experience, like smiling for a full minute, have the same effect? How about the other extreme, like a full, wolf-like howl?

Professor Schaefer asked a Fairleigh Dickenson graduate student, Charles Newhoff, to demonstrate all three - the broad smile, the prolonged and jolly laugh, and the full-throated howl. Then he instructed the students to try them all in private, away from the influence of their classmates.

Already this was an astonishing break in routine for the psychology students, made all the more bizarre by Mr. Newhoff. There he was - a man so serious that Professor Schaefer calls him "austere" - standing before them and howling at the top of his lungs.

Newhoff: I'll do it for you right now if you like.

Landphair: Sure, demonstrate for me.

Newhoff: O.K., It's much more effective when you see someone doing it, you know, pulling the head back and giving that, letting it all out, all that tension, that's what the howling is about.

Landphair: As for the laughter, Professor Schaefer says please don't call it "fake" or "phony," even though it is self-induced.

Schaefer: It's not like you're pretending to laugh you chuckle a little bit, just to be polite. That wasn't it at all. You were really laughing heartily for a minute.

Landphair: Give me a sample. Well I know I'm smiling now. How are you feeling?

Schaefer: I'm feeling good. Couple of reasons: The endorphins are released when you laugh heartily like that, which we know make us feel better and deaden pain. Then there's like a cathartic effect, where you just kind of get rid of tension and worries and cares when you shake your body up like that. You just feel more alive.

Landphair: The minute of smiling produced a moderate upswing in mood, but there was no improvement after the werewolf-like howl. That, the students reported afterward, was just too weird.

"I think we have here, with spontaneous laughter and smiling, a cost-free, effective, readily available, no-calorie way to brighten your mood and to have some positive physiological effects," said Mr. Schaefer.

An obvious question remains, and it's one that Fairleigh Dickenson professor Charles Schaefer will try to answer in a follow-up study. Assuming it's true that as former National Review magazine editor Norman Cousins once said, laughter is like "inner jogging" - a really good workout for the soul - are there long-lasting benefits from a good laugh?

For now, Professor Schaefer, and even his "austere" assistant, Mr. Newhoff, urge people to give spontaneous smiles and laughter a try. If you're embarrassed to be seen roaring with laughter for no apparent reason, they say, close the office door or roll up the car window and let 'er rip.

"It sounds strange now, to sit by yourself and laugh," said Mr. Newhoff. "I can't say I do this on a daily basis, but at times, just to sit and laugh a little bit, it really does lift the mood, and it stays with you, that improved mood. I would just encourage everyone to give it a try once or twice and see for themselves how powerful this stuff is."

Laughter does sweeten life, Charles Newhoff and his laugh-a-minute mentor are convinced. And they point to a comment by the late Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge: "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."