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Gelotology is the study of humor and laughter, and its effects on the human body. It is also the psychological and physiological study of laughter. The word is from the Greek gelos, geloto meaning laugh, laughter, laughing. A gelotologist is a person who specializes in gelotology. The word gelotology is often misspelled as gelatology. There is well documented and ongoing research in this field of study.
It has been shown that laughing helps protect the heart. Although studies are not sure why laughing protects the heart, the studies do explain that mental stress impairs the endothelium, which is the protective barrier lining a person’s blood vessels. Once the endothelium is impaired, it can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to cholesterol build up in a person’s coronary arteries, which can ultimately cause a heart attack. Psychologist Steve Sultanoff, Ph.D., who is the president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, gave this explanation:
"With deep, heartfelt laughter, it appears that serum cortisol, which is a hormone that is secreted when we’re under stress, is decreased. So when you’re having a stress reaction, if you laugh, apparently the cortisol that has been released during the stress reaction is reduced.
Also according to Sultanoff in his interview for the article for WebMD, laughter has been show to increase tolerance of pain and boost the body’s production of infection-fighting antibodies, which can help prevent hardening of the arteries and subsequent conditions caused thereby such as angina, heart attacks, or strokes.
Sultanoff also added that research shows that distressing emotions lead to heart disease. It is shown that people who are “chronically angry and hostile have a greater likelihood for heart attack, people who “live in anxious, stressed out lifestyles have greater blockages of their coronary arteries”, and people who are “chronically depressed have a two times greater change of heart disease.” WebMD 2000
A study in Japan shows that laughter lowers blood sugar after a meal. Keiko Hayashi, Ph.D., R.N, of the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Japan, and his team performed a study of 19 people with type 2 diabetes. They collected the patients’ blood before and two hours after a meal. The patients attending a boring 40 minute lecture after dinner on the first night of the study. On the second night, the patients attend a 40 minute comedy show. The patients’ blood sugar went up after the comedy show, but much less that it did after the lecture. The study found that even when patients without diabetes did the same testing, a similar result was found. Scientists conclude that laughter is good for people with diabetes. They suggest that ‘chemical messengers made during laughter may help the body compensate for the disease.” WebMD 2003
Studies at the University of Maryland found that when a group of people were shown a comedy, after the screening their blood vessels performed normally, whereas when they watched a drama, after the screening their blood vessels tended to tense up and restricted the blood flow. Web MD 2006
Studies show stress decreases the immune system. “Some studies have shown that humor may raise infection-fighting antibodies in the body and boost the levels of immune cells.” Web MD 2006“When we laugh, natural killer cells which destroy tumors and viruses increase, along with Gamma-interferon (a disease-fighting protein), T-cells (important for our immune system) and B-cells (which make disease-fighting antibodies). As well as lowering blood pressure, laughter increases oxygen in the blood, which also encourages healing.” Discover Health 2004
Relaxation & Sleep
“The focus on the benefits of laughter really began with Norman Cousin’s memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins, who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful spine condition, found that a diet of comedies, like Marx Brothers films and episodes of Candid Camera, helped him feel better. He said that ten minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep.” WebMD 2006
It has been estimated by scientists that laughing 100 times equals the same physical exertion as a 10 minute workout on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on a stationary exercise bike. Laughing works out the diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. Cool Quiz 2006
However, William Fry, a pioneer on laughter research, in an article for WebMD was said to indicate that it “took ten minutes on a rowing machine for his heart rate to reach the level it would after just one minute of hearty laughter.” WebMD 2006
Anxiety & Children
According to an article of WebMD, studies have shown that children who have a clown present prior to surgery along with their parents and medical staff had less anxiety than children who just had their parents and medical staff present. High levels of anxiety prior to surgery leads to a higher risk of complications following surgeries in children. According to researchers, about 60% of children suffer from anxiety before surgery.
The study involved 40 children ages 5 to 12 who were about to have minor surgery. Half had a clown present in addition to their parents and medical staff, the other half only had their parents and medical staff present. The results of the study showed that the children who had a clown present had significantly less pre-surgery anxiety.WebMD 2005
Nearly 2/3 of people with asthma reported having asthma attacks that were triggered by laughter, according to a study presented at the American Thoracic Society annual meeting in 2005. It did not seem to matter how deep of a laugh the laughter entailed, whether it be a giggle, chuckle, or belly laugh, says Stuart Garay, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at New York University Medical Center in New York.
Patients were part of an 18 month long program who were evaluated for a list of asthma triggers. The patients did not have any major differences in age, duration of asthma, or family history of asthma. However, exercise-induced asthma was more frequently found in patients who also had laughter-induced asthma, according to the study. 61% of laughter induced asthma also reported exercise as a trigger, as opposed to only 35% without laughter-induced asthma. Andrew Ries, M.D. indicates that “it probably involves both movements in the airways as well as an emotional reaction.” WebMD 2005
Types of Therapy
There is well documented and ongoing research in this field of study. Psych Nurse 2004 This has led to new and beneficial therapies practiced by doctors, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals using humor and laughter to help patients cope or treat a variety of physical, mental, and spiritual issues. The various therapies are not specific to health care professionals or clinicians. Some of the therapies can be practiced individually or in a group setting to aid in a person's well-being. There seems to be something to the old saying "laughter is the best medicine". Or perhaps, as stated by Voltaire, "The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease."
- Humor Therapy: It is also known as therapeutic humor. Using humorous materials such as books, shows, movies, or stories to encourage spontaneous discussion of the patients own humorous experiences. This can be provided individually or in a group setting. The process is facilitated by clinician. There can be a disadvantage to humor therapy in a group format, as it can be difficult to provide materials that all participants find humorous. It is extremely important the clinician is sensitive to laugh "with" clients rather than "at" the clients.
- Clown Therapy: Individuals that are trained in clown therapy, proper hygiene and hospital procedures. In some hospitals "clown rounds" are made. The clowns perform for others with the use of magic, music, fun, joy, and compassion. For hospitalized children, clown therapy can increase patient cooperation and decrease parental & patient anxiety. In some children the need for sedation is reduced. Other benefits include pain reduction and the increased stimulation of immune function in children. This use of clown therapy is not limited hospitals. They can transform other places where things can be tough such as nursing homes, orphanages, refugee camps, war zones, and even prisons. The presence of clowns tends to have a positive effect.
- Laughter Therapy: A client's laughter triggers are identified such as people in their lives that make them laugh, things from childhood, situations, movies, jokes, comedians, basically anything that makes them laugh. Based on the information provided by the client, the clinician creates a personal humor profile to aid in the laughter therapy. In this one on one setting, the client is taught basic exercises that can be practiced. The intent of the exercises is to remind the importance of relationships and social support. It is important the clinician is sensitive to what the client perceives as humorous.
- Laughter Meditation: In laughter meditation there are some similarities to traditional meditation. However, it is the laughter that focuses the person to concentrate on the moment. Through a three stage process of stretching, laughing and or crying, and a period of meditative silence. In the first stage, the person places all energy into the stretching every muscle without laughter. In the second stage, the person starts with a gradual smile, and then slowly begins to purposely belly laugh or cry, whichever occurs. In the final stage, the person abruptly stops laughing or crying, then with their eyes now closed they breathe without a sound and focus their concentration on the moment. The process is approximately a 15 minute exercise. This may be awkward for some people as the laughter is not necessarily spontaneous. This is generally practiced on an individual basis.
- Laughter Yoga & Laughter Clubs: Somewhat similar to traditional yoga, laughter yoga is a exercise which incorporates breathing, yoga, stretching techniques along with laughter. The structured format includes several laughter exercises for a period of 30 to 45 minutes facilitated by a trained individual. Practiced it can be used as supplemental or preventative therapy. Laughter yoga can be performed in a group or a club. Therapeutic laughter clubs are extension of Laughter Yoga, but in a formalized club format. The need for humorous materials is not necessarily required. Laughter yoga is similar to yogic asana and the practice of Buddhist forced laughter. Some participants may find it awkward as laughter is not necessarily spontaneous in the structured format
- MacDonald, C., "A Chuckle a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Therapeutic Humor & Laughter" Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services(2004) V42, 3:18-25
- Kawakami, K., et al, Origins of smile and laughter: A preliminary study Early Human Development (2006) 82, 61-66
- Johnson, S., Emotions and the Brain Discover (2003) V24, N4
- Panksepp, J., Burgdorf, J., “Laughing” rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy? Physiology & Behavior (2003) 79:533-547
- Discover Health (2004) Humor & Laughter: Health Benefits and Online Sources
- Etymology of Gelotology
- University of Washington
- Dr. Kartaria School of Laughter Yoga
- World Laughter Tour
- Laughter as Therapy
- Humour therapy for cancer patients
- Website containing a database with laughters
- Chimpanzee Facial Expression & Vocalizations
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