I was never in a fistfight as a kid, but I was in a lot of finger fights. Or should I call them by their official name: tickle fights.
I more or less broke even in these bouts of hysteria, but win or lose, I had the same experience after each one: utter relaxation. It was as if every iota of tension surfed out of my body on waves of laughter.
But tickling can do a lot more than relieve stress. According to some fascinating research, it may also improve learning and memory. And tickle or no tickle, laughter itself has healing powers.
Tickling Takes On Fear
The thought of tickling a rat may be repulsive to many of us, but not to Japanese researchers in a recent study. They tickled one group of rats daily for ten days, and did not tickle a second group. They gave both groups an electric shock right after sounding an alarm. When the rats were exposed to the alarm without the shock a few days later, the tickled rodents showed less fear than the non-tickled ones. The reduced fear in the tickled group was confirmed by the lower amount of adrenaline—a hormone released in response to stress—in their bloodstreams compared to the non-tickled group. Researchers also found that 10 days of tickling increased the number of neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important in learning and memory.
Better Health Is a Laughing Matter
My friend Mike and I often take off on absurd jags that leave us convulsing with guffaws. After one of these outbursts, he told me that everyone should have at least one good belly laugh each day as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Can a laugh a day keep the doctor away? Maybe not, but it’s certainly good for you. For starters, the relaxation of your muscles after a boisterous belly laugh can last 45 minutes.
While our minds know when we force a laugh, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the real thing and a fake. That means you benefit from forced laughter, even if you’re not reacting to something funny. Yukking it up can improve mood, temporarily relieve pain, and reduce the levels of at least four hormones associated with stress: epinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and growth hormone. It also releases endorphins, one of the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Laughter can even improve the functioning of blood vessels and lower blood pressure, which is good news for your heart.
Laughter Enhances Immunity
It may not always be the best medicine, as the adage goes, but laughter can be part of a serious treatment program. An innovative Laugh Therapy known as the Smile-Sun Method has been shown to improve the immunity levels of hospitalized cancer patients who are on chemotherapy. This involves repeatedly stating positive messages in a group setting (such as “I love myself,” “I love to make you happy,” “I sympathize,” and others), with emphasis on eye contact and making connections with others. The Smile-Sun Method has been found to increase spontaneous laughter and self-confidence among patients, while improving immune function and relieving pain.
Humor has become a mainstay for fostering positive feelings in hospitals, and ambulatory care centers have incorporated programs to make people laugh. Numerous hospitals use volunteer groups, clowns, or comedians who visit patients with the specific purpose of providing opportunities for laughter.
Did You Hear the One About the Yoga Class?
You may be familiar with hatha yoga…but what about ha-ha yoga? Yoga has embraced laughter as well, and Laughter Yoga clubs are springing up everywhere. There are currently more than 6,000 of these clubs in 60 countries around the world.
In this playful variation on an ancient art, participants remain in motion and maintain eye contact with others in the group. There may be rhythmic hand clapping, along with vigorous chanting of “Ho, Ho, Ha, Ha,” which stimulates breathing from the diaphragm. Dance movements may be part of the routine. The goal is to experience joy in the moment, regardless of what else may be happening in your life. Health benefits occur at a neurological level; Laughter Yoga has been shown to create new neuronal connections that contribute to more positive feelings.
So go ahead. Let loose with a resounding laugh. Your body will thank you.
Find Out More
- R. Douglas Fields, “A Tickling Way to Reduce Fear,” Psychology Today
- “What Happens in a Laughter Yoga Session,” Laughter Yoga University