Is laughter the best medicine?

Child laughing.
Laughter helps us to take ourselves and our lives less seriously.

In last week's Southern Star, I talked about the healing power of laughter. The column is reproduced below. 


There’s a certain truth to the old cliché about laughter being the best medicine.


The late cognitive psychologist Dr Albert Ellis certainly believed in the power of laughter. Like most cognitive therapists, Ellis believed anxiety and depression were underpinned by distorted and unhelpful thinking patterns. Unlike his fellow cognitive therapists, however, Ellis used some pretty eccentric methods to get his points across. He encouraged his clients to sing songs that made fun of themselves, and would even hold public seminars where he would involve his audience in sing-alongs.


One of his favourite anti-anxiety songs was ‘Wild About Worry’, which went to the tune of ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry’. ‘Oh, I'm just wild about worry’, Ellis would sing, ‘And worry's wild about me!/ We're quite a twosome to make life gruesome/ And filled with anxiety!’ Another, ‘What If, What If’, went to the tune of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube: ‘I think of what if, what if!/And scare myself stiff, yes stiff, quite stiff!/When things are as certain as can be, I ask for a perfect guarantee’.


Another favourite was ‘Beautiful Hangup’: ‘Beautiful hangup, don't go away!/ Who will befriend me if you do not stay?/ Though you still make me look like a jerk/ Living without you would take so much work!’ Ellis also satirised some people’s dire need for love and approval (‘Love, oh love me, only me, or I will die without you!/ Oh make your love a guarantee, so I can never doubt you!/ Love me with great tenderness, with no ifs or buts dear/ If you love me somewhat less, I’ll hate your goddamned guts dear!’) (continued below...)



Old couple laughing.
Laughter brings people together.

This isn’t laughter for the sake of laughter. Ellis liked to emphasise that we are disturbed not by events but by the views which we take of them. His songs remind us our feelings are being dictated by our thoughts, and these thoughts are often unreasonable, even silly. There is no need to fear these negative thoughts – instead, you should challenge them and maybe even laugh at them. 


Similarly, I’ve noted previously that research confirms people tend to get happier as they get older. One of the main reasons is they learn to not take themselves too seriously, to accept and laugh off their personal shortcomings.


On that note, I’m a big fan of the Despair.com website, which sells ironic posters and calendars satirising the excesses of the positive thinking industry. The posters usually contain an inspiring image and some not-so-inspiring text such as ‘Discouragement – Because there's nothing standing between you and your goal but a total lack of talent and complete failure of will’; ‘Procrastination – Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now’; and ‘Dream Small – It’s your only hope for success, really’. 


Of course, there doesn’t have to be a moral to the funny story – there’s nothing at all wrong with laughter for the sake of laughter. Scientific studies show laughter has huge health benefits. When we laugh, our bodies produce endorphins, happy hormones that help reduce pain. Laughter lowers cortisol levels, thereby reducing stress. It generates an anti-inflammatory effect that helps protect the heart and fights infection by stimulating the immune system.



Laughter brings people together. It reduces anxiety, depression, guilt and obsessive thinking. It helps us to take ourselves and our lives less seriously, to keep our problems in perspective.


And it helps us cope with the unpleasant. I heard Donald Trump defend gun rights in the aftermath of the recent shooting in Florida, when 17 teenagers lost their lives. Trump wanted to focus on mental health, not guns. Arm teachers with guns, he said, and pay them a bonus. 


I could have cried. Instead, I laughed out loud.