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53. The Unexpected Benefits of Laughter

Whether you're working in the public or private sector, times are tough at the moment. Tough financially, because most of us are less well off than we were a year ago, and psychologically, because a threat hangs over many of our jobs, and the economy at large is in similarly precarious straits. It is strange that, although we are more affluent than we have ever been, even with the recession, according to surveys our sense of well-being goes down and down. It makes you wonder whether affluence not only fails to make us content, but may actually make us less content. It has been shown that well-being does increase with average income, but only up to around �15,000 per person per year. After that, increases in income have no beneficial effect. This week's tip is about laughter, a resource that, unlike money, has been shown to make people both happier and healthier. And it's free. A colleague recently forwarded to me an article by Dov Michaeli http://www.thedoctorweighsin.com , a medical blogger in the US. He reported on two papers presented at the European Society of Cardiology meeting this summer in Paris. The first paper, by a Dr Bonaguidi of Italy, looked at a group of patients, mostly men, who had had an myocardial infarction. He wanted to see how anger affected the prognosis of these patients. He followed them up over a ten year period and found that while 78.5% of those who did not have an angry personality profile were alive at ten years, and had had no further infarctions, the same was true for only 57.4% of those with an angry personality profile. In other words, compared with being angry, not being angry gave you a 50% improvement in prognosis. The second paper, by a Dr Michael Miller from the US, reported the effect of laughter on the diameter of the brachial artery, the main artery that runs down the arm. He found that when people were exposed to a stressor, such as watching the film Saving Private Ryan, their arteries constricted. When they watched a funny film, There's Something About Mary, their arteries dilated. The difference between the diameter of the arteries ranged from 30-50%, similar to that achieved by aerobic exercise or the use of statins. In other words, laughter actually increases the blood flow in your arteries. It would not be outrageous to extrapolate and postulate that laughter protects you from heart disease. Laughter has also been shown to decrease the inflammatory response (which among other things mediates the depositing of atheroma in your arteries) and to increase the number of the lymphocytes in the body that are responsible for destroying viruses and cancer cells. MRI studies have shown that laughter affects every centre in the brain, and research has found that subjects who are exposed to humour do better in tests and are more creative. So laughter is not only fun, it's good for your health. But how do you laugh when there's nothing to laugh about? Well, of course, you can watch a funny film or programme on television, you can talk about something funny to a friend, you can recall a funny incident, read a funny book or article, look up some jokes on the internet etc etc. There is, though, a much simpler way - just do it. Try this: 1. Notice how you are feeling right now and rate your level of contentment or cheerfulness out of ten. 2. Now smile. A really big one. Keep smiling for a minute. 3. Now rate your cheerfulness out of ten again. 4. Now start laughing. Let your whole face laugh, and then let your shoulders shake with it. 5. Re-rate your cheerfulness. 6. Convinced? Repeat as necessary. Have a funny week....