While the author of the Book of Proverbs remains uncertain (most likely, King Solomon wrote it), its intent is not. The book was written to share insight, and much conventional wisdom originates in its pages. Proverbs 17:22, "a merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones," has transformed into the popular saying, "Laughter is the best medicine." It turns out that King Solomon, et al., were right: Laughing has medicinal applications.
Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University, led a team of researchers who evaluated laughter and its impact on pain perception in the lab and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the lab, participants watched clips of South Park or The Simpsons before or after researchers exposed the subjects to painful experiences—either by tightening a blood pressure cuff on them or slipping a wine chiller on their arms. At the festival, before and after performances, participants stood against a wall with their legs bent at a 90-degree angle as if they were sitting in a chair until it became so painful they fell on the ground. (My pilates instructor makes us do this, but she calls it a workout.)
Previous research suggested that laughter dulls pain, and Dunbar found evidence that supports this claim.
Groups that either watched or participated in comedy felt less pain than their peers, who watched a documentary. And he found that people who laughed more had an even higher pain threshold than those who only let a few giggles escape. Chuckling with others also increased laughter's positive impact; people are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than alone. Dunbar believes that laughing triggers endorphins—neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which spark a feeling of comfort similar to what occurs when someone takes an opiate. Love, excitement, spicy foods, orgasms, exercise, and pain all cause the brain to produce endorphins, which also provide an analgesic effect.
Dunbar further examined the two types of laughter, Duchenne and non-Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is the type of natural chuckle that people experience when they see or hear something funny, which is often contagious. This giggling involves the contractions of the orbicularis oculi muscle (the muscle that enables the eyelids to close) and Dunbar suspects that this packs more pain relief than non-Duchenne laughter, which is emotionless and context-driven and does not involve any muscle activity. Duchenne laughter might be so effective because it involves muscle activity much like exercise or a massage, both of which release endorphins.
"The capacity to sustain laughter for periods of several minutes at a time may exaggerate the opioid effects, thus ramping up the sense of heightened affect that humans experience in these contexts. A key aspect of this may be that social (or Duchenne) laughter is highly socially synchronized. In a study of physical exercise (rowing), synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production."
So next time you're in pain, try watching something funny and having a laugh. It might just help.
Shown above: The Yue Minjun "Amazing Laughter" sculpture in Vancouver, BC, photographed by Flickr user Matthew Grapengeiser