I am humbled and happy to say that this April marks 10 years of writing this column. The “Living Well” column began as a telephone call out of the blue to then-Catholic News Service editor David Gibson and it has turned into an absolute labor of love.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to continue to write about the intersection of faith and health.
My first column was about taking laughter seriously. As a kickoff to this anniversary, I thought I’d revisit the subject of how laughter might impact our lives and health, particularly through the prism of medical practice and science.
In 2006, I wrote about a pilot program at UCLA called “Rx Laughter,” which studied how humor can help pediatric patients tolerate the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy treatment. Founded by television executive Sherry Dunay Hilber, the program is still going strong.
“In the past several years,” Hilber said, “we have expanded our therapeutic programs to include youth receiving treatment for substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and trauma. This is done in a variety of ways: collaboration with clinicians at mental health center, student volunteers from the performing arts sector and digitally with entertainment industry professionals.”
Recent scientific studies on the effect of laughter on blood pressure, cortisol and other hormonal levels have informed the understanding of why laughter and humor seem so beneficial.
One 2005 study on the effects of laughter on women who faced postpartum depression concluded that a laughter program can be helpful to women transitioning into become mothers. Another 2015 study in Thailand found that a laughing program for private office workers decreased stress.
Laughter also has been successfully incorporated into psychological therapy sessions. Recently, I interviewed Enda Junkins, a licensed therapist and speaker trained in laughter therapy. She has used laughter therapy in private practice and talks about it in speeches and workshops.
“Laughter is a biological process that releases feeling,” said Junkins. “Bringing laughter into the practice of therapy gives you more tools to work on particular problems. If (a patient) can work on lightening the issue, you can move through it more quickly. Laughter will put a serious issue in perspective.”
Even deep grief can be aided and eased through laughter.
“When people are talking about serious issues,” said Junkins, “laughter helps release the grief. It releases the anxiety about crying. There are primitive cultures where they laugh first before they cry.”
Laughter can unlock stress in a group setting, too, for example in a corporation.
“Laughter is contagious,” Junkins said. “Some people develop controls or barriers to laughing, but you don’t have those when you hear laughter. Then, you know it’s OK to laugh.”
With more studies to come about the effects of laughter on boosting health and relieving stress, and current work that incorporates laughter, the scientific basis and acceptance for its use should grow. I’m happy to see that the subject that tickled me 10 years ago is alive, well and keeping us all laughing.