Gelasto…what?? This hard-to-say word defines a wonderful condition known as humor, taking yourself lightly and laughter. Laughter is a valuable part of life and enriches us in many healthful ways. Humor, joy and laughter have been acknowledged since ancient times. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 17:22 states “a joyful heart is the health of the body but a depressed spirit dries up the bones.”
Humor is referenced 287 times in the New Testament. The Tanach (Jewish Bible which includes the Torah) mentions laughter 50 times and Rabbah, a 4th-century talmudist, always began his lectures with a joke. Andre de Mondeville, a medieval surgeon who practiced around the years 1290-1320, taught his students to “regulate the whole regimen of the patient’s life for joy and happiness.” Florence Nightingale, epidemiologist and founder of modern nursing, recognized in 1860 that humor can be an intervention to refocus away from illness and confinement: “The fact that these painful expressions are far better dismissed by a real laugh.” Sigmund Freud in 1927 wrote a paper on “the greatness, strength, and beauty of humor.”
The physical, psychological, and social benefits of laughter have been studied by many health and psychology researchers and their conclusions are that humor is a very positive force for achieving and maintaining good health.
When a person laughs, especially a long, genuine, and hearty laugh, there is an increase in heart rate, a decrease in blood pressure, and improved circulation—almost like a quick cardiovascular workout. There is an increased air exchange and improved oxygenation which can help clear respiratory mucus and energize thinking. With laughter, there is increased muscle tension followed by increased relaxation which can decrease stress and pain. There is measurable pain relief, similar to a runner’s high caused by a release of endorphins in the brain.
The immune system is enhanced with a decrease in the production of cortisol and epinephrine and an increased production of antibodies, which in turn increases the action of lymphocytes and T cells, which attack viruses and tumors. One minute of anger can weaken the immune system for five hours, while a minute of laughter can strengthen it for 24 hours. Laughter stimulates both hemispheres of the brain at the same time, coordinating the senses for a fuller ability to function. Tears of laughter and sorrow are chemically different from the tears we shed while chopping onions and these tears remove toxins related to stress.
The psychological benefits of positive humor are many. Laughter relieves stress, tension, and anxiety. When a person is able to joke and laugh about something that causes distress or fear, that person gains power over that which is frightening. Our coping skills are enhanced when we are distracted from distress. Much of our suffering is related to how we view our particular circumstances. Laughter turns us outward for a focus outside our immediate problem. This can alter perspective and put what distresses us aside, even if only for a little while.
Joking can be a healthy way to deal with problems and explore options for solutions. Humor and laughter are natural bridges between people and can diffuse anger. Learning can be enhanced with laughter. Humor can provide relief from the burdens of everyday living. Silliness lets people suspend logic, propriety and even reality for a short while allowing relaxation, rest and a diversion from everyday problems.
Communication can be enhanced through appropriate comedy. Constructive humor fosters communication by breaking down barriers, by making people feel good and by bringing people closer together. It can help to establish rapport and foster positive relationships. Through laughter and mirth, people are better able to express fears and broach subjects too difficult to bring up in a serious manner. “Dark” or macabre humor can be therapeutic in that it lets us express fear and reduces that which terrifies us to something far more manageable.
Laughter can promote group solidarity. Look at any well functioning work team. The members can laugh among themselves and are usually able to work through differences. Humor can diffuse anger and transform a negative situation into a positive one.
There are barriers to using humor in our professional and everyday lives. Embarrassment, social mores, fear of others’ reactions, anxiety and anger are common. More often we just fail to recognize the comical circumstances that surround us daily.
There are truly comical people who make the world a happier place and we need to appreciate them and seek them out. So embrace humor. Laugh out loud and share your joy with others. These are powerful forces for good health. Eat well, exercise regularly and experience Gelastolalia often!
Mia Smitt is a nurse practitioner with specialty in family practice. She has recently retired and settled in Marana after two-and-a-half years living on a 40-foot sailboat exploring the world.