Readers of this column will know that the past two weeks have been difficult for a number of friends and me since the disturbing death of a personal and close comrade. Laughter was difficult and the world seemed drab, sad and heartless.
Over the weekend I happened upon some old comedies on various TV channels – 'Not the 9 O'Clock News', '30 Rock', 'Mr Bean' and of course, my favourite of all time, 'The Big Bang Theory'. Thanks to these I began to laugh again and the sadness of the previous weeks melted away, at least for long enough to give me a reprieve from gloom. And there was no doubt but that I felt decidedly better for this interlude. Perhaps we should make engagement in laughter-enhancing behaviours a New Year resolution.
It may seem self-indulgent, but due to the enhancing effects of laughter on mind, body and relationships it could be argued that it has properties that extend beyond our own narrow, self-absorbent well-being.
At a physiological level, laughter increases oxygen intake and with it, the expulsion of carbon dioxide. The convulsive nature of laughing forces us to imbibe quantities of oxygen that are much more elevated than usual. This improves the functioning of our cells. Oxygen is circulated in the blood and so our body tissue becomes more aerated.
Contributing to this is the muscular action of laughing, which forces blood around the arteries and back through veins more rapidly. In fact the activity of the muscles in laughing is akin to a workout and it is claimed that the act of laughing involves muscles in the face, neck, shoulders, upper arms, scalp and diaphragm. And the more hearty and longer the laughter the more it increases heart rate and blood pressure which then reduce. The feeling is one of tiredness, relaxation and contentment.
It is well recognised that worry, depression and anxiety weaken the immune system while laughter has the opposite effect. Laughter releases hormones known as endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin. These are naturally occurring antidepressants. They hook on to the receptors on the immune cells and boost their activity. As a result cells that increase disease-destroying antibodies increase. The increase in endorphins may also help with pain relief.
Laughter has even been subject to study by anthropologists who suggest that it may have first originated in humans as a gesture of relief when danger had passed. And since it inhibits the fight-or-flight response it indicates trust and facilitates the formation of social bonds. It also releases stress and for that reason is often used by those working in professions associated with illness, death and other tragedies, as a safety valve. Similarly in threatening situations it may be used as a way of deflecting anger and as a gesture of conciliation. Take for example a dispute in a board room which can often be reduced by the introduction of some levity at a moment of tension.
There is also a contagion effect and we are much more likely to laugh when we are with others who are laughing. It is believed that this is because it triggers neural circuits in the brain that further stimulate laughter. Unlike other emotional responses that involve focussed neural circuits, laughter has an effect on multiple and wide areas of the brain including the right and left cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes and the sensory processing area at the back of the brain. These analyse the words and the sentence of the joke, then the part involved in emotional responses is activated, the other side of the brain then "gets" (or otherwise) the joke.
Finally the motor areas of the brain produce the movements necessary for laughter to occur. So this is a complex amalgam of activities across the brain.
If you're feeling dispirited or just want to revise your broken New Year Resolution I recommend that you think about what makes you laugh and do more of it. If you can't think of anything just watch some comedy clips on YouTube. 'Mr Bean's Wedding' is a good place to start. You won't need any cocoa to help you sleep afterwards; the wonderfully soporific feeling that follows will do it all. Enjoy, and have a good night's rest.
So, pick your shows and your comedians, watch them on TV or YouTube, record them or listen to them live. Laughing may not prevent mental illness but for those who are stressed or unhappy laughter may indeed be the best medicine.