What is laughter therapy?

Theory Behind Laughter Therapy

Humor can also aid doctor-patient relationships.
Humor can also aid doctor-patient relationships.
© iStockphoto.com/lisafx

The healing properties of laughter have been extolled since biblical times; in the book of Proverbs, you'll find this advice: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" [source: Brody]. When it comes to modern day laughter therapy, however, you'll want to consider the book of Cousins. More precisely, the tome "Anatomy of an Illness (As Perceived by the Patient)," written by Norman Cousins in 1979.

When Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, he was given very slim odds of recovery. He was unable to move and in constant pain. However, in the midst of this dire situation, Cousins didn't lose his sense of humor. He credits his recovery to a prescription of "Candid Camera" episodes, Marx Brothers movies and funny stories read by nurses. With 10 minutes of laughter, he wrote, two hours of pain-free sleep could be procured.

Since then, numerous studies have found that while laughter isn't necessarily the best medicine, it's pretty darn good. For example, a study conducted at UCLA found that watching funny shows increased children's tolerance for pain, which could be helpful when tiny patients have to undergo big procedures [source: UCLA]. At the University of Maryland, researchers found that groups that watched humorous films experienced an increase in blood flow compared to groups that watched downers [source: Wolf].

That could be because laughter has been called internal jogging, and it may confer all the psychological benefits of a good workout [source: Brody]. The act of laughing stimulates hormones called catecholamines, which in turn release the happy juice -- endorphins. With endorphins surging through our bloodstream, we're more apt to feel happy and relaxed. With each laugh, therefore, we're relieving stress, reducing anxiety and increasing our stores of personal energy. All of these psychological and physiological results are wonderful tools in coping with illness, a hospital stay or even just a cranky coworker.

But if you're facing cancer, battling depression, or dealing with the meanest boss on the planet, can anything truly seem funny?