I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but how many of us really believe that laughter has a positive physiologic effect on us?
You’d be surprised. Several studies have shown that laughter can have a therapeutic effect. For example, one study found that laughter raised one’s pain tolerance, as subjects who laughed at a video tolerated more discomfort than controls. Other reported that the benefits of laughter include strengthening one’s immune function, improving positive emotions, moderating stress and improving interpersonal processes. Therefore, it seems that laughter is a definite way to relieve stress and improve one’s mood — something that everyone, medical student or not, could benefit from. Furthermore, unlike several other mood-boosting or stress-relieving activities, laughter is completely free!
Given the research, I decided that I needed to test out the theory that laughter has positive physical and mental effects. I was having trouble thinking of an activity focused on laughter, until one of my friends suggested going to a comedy club. Although a little different from all my adventures thus far, in which I actively participated in an activity, I realized that this was the best way to test my theory out. Also, I appreciated that I wouldn’t be under any pressure — all I would have to do was sit and watch a show!
I went with a few friends to see a guy named Chris. We were just in time to see the opening act, and although she was pretty funny, the jokes weren’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Chris came out a few minutes after that, and the crowd, which had been a little somber at first, got a lot louder. He started off by making some really hilarious, but slightly inappropriate, jokes — the kind that you start laughing and then stop and wonder, “Was I really supposed to laugh at this?” By the time we were halfway through the show, the crowd was even more riled up than at the beginning (possibly because of the decreasing sobriety of the audience). And, by that time, I had figured out a pattern to his routine such that I had learned not to wince whenever one of his jokes came out as a little flat or inappropriate.
He was funny, don’t get me wrong. I laughed a lot, everyone around me was laughing, and the time went by extremely quickly. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel as if my mental health had dramatically improved. I was in a fairly good mood, but I had also been in the exact same mood right before the show, so I wasn’t sure if his performance had any noticeable positive impact. I began to rack it over in my brain. Maybe he wasn’t as funny as I thought. Or, maybe I had an odd sense of humor? And then it came to me.
Perhaps laughter isn’t really about humor at all. Or maybe, what I thought was the stimulus for laughter — a funny joke — may not be the real factor behind laughter after all.
Curious about this theory, I decided to do some research to see if this was true, and I was surprised to find a few studies backing this up. In one study, researchers went to public places and observed people right before they laughed, analyzing a total of 2000 cases of naturally occurring laughter. The results? Jokes rarely made other people laugh — people made other people laugh. How the speaker reacted was paramount: if the speaker was laughing, the audience was more likely to laugh. Also, studies show that while laughter does indeed increase our energy levels by raising our blood pressure and heart rate, it is unlikely that laughter evolved primarily to make us feel good or improve our health. Instead, laughter seems to serve more as a bonding mechanism between people — in other words, a way to bring people together. This may be the underlying root to improving our mood and relieving stress: we are social creatures and, at least to some extent, we find that others have an influence on our moods and actions. By interacting with people in a positive manner, we find that our mood and stress levels improve — not necessarily because we are laughing, but because we are simply interacting with other people. After all, humans are biologically wired to form social connections and we are, at our core, creatures of evolution.
What I took away from my experience at the comedy show is this: laughter certainly helps to improve one’s mood and relieve stress. However, the reason for why a person laughs is even more important than the act of laughing. This means that we should all be aware of what makes us laugh, and whenever possible, be present around that stimulus. For me, that means being around my slightly clumsy puppy as he tries (and fails) to follow basic commands. It also means being around some of my goofiest friends right before taking an exam. I look back to some of the most stressful times in my life, both in and out of medical school, and what truly alleviated my stress was laughing with my friends and family at pointless, mundane things — and honestly, I think I laughed at least ten times harder during those times than I did at the comedy show. Therefore, while everyone’s sense of humor is different, I think the one thing that everyone has in common is that being around people we care about makes us laugh harder. And, that’s probably the most important lesson I learned from my experience, and something I think all of us can appreciate as well.
That does not mean the comedy show was a complete waste, however! For one, tickets are reasonably priced (unless it’s a very famous comedian), so it’s definitely doable on a medical student’s budget. It was also a fun night out with my friends, which between classes and rotations and the like, can become few and far between. Thus, I definitely think it’s something everyone should experience at least once. Just remember, though: the real root to happiness is not necessarily to laugh a lot, but to surround yourself with people who make you happier. Even if you don’t think you’ll get hooked on comedy shows, take a few of your friends and go to the show: I bet you’ll probably have fun anyway.
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.