Starting in the mid-1950s, Mad Magazine featured images of the goofy, fictional Alfred E. Neuman on all its covers. Mr. Neuman’s famous motto, “What? Me Worry?” gave generations of readers a good chuckle. Now, several new studies show that Alfred E. Neuman’s fans may have reaped health benefits not only by chuckling, but also by heeding his example to worry less and enjoy life more.
The first study, out of the School of Medicine at the University of Baltimore found that laughing literally opens the blood vessels.1 The researchers reached this conclusion after showing 30 healthy study participants excerpts from two films — one a gory drama, and the other, a comedy. The subjects first watched the harrowing Saving Private Ryan, a World War II film with Tom Hanks that opens with a half-hour slaughter scene in Normandy.2 On another day, they watched “There’s Something About Mary,” a Farrelly Brothers comedy starring Ben Stiller, in which he gets an extremely sensitive part of his anatomy caught in his zipper during a hot first date with Cameron Diaz.3 Meanwhile, the researchers hooked the subjects up and took 300 separate measurements of the diameter of the blood vessels in their arms.4 (Yes, people really do these kinds of studies.)
Sure enough, the depressing movie led to a condition called “vasoconstriction,” in which the lining of the blood vessels — the endothelium — narrowed. But when the subjects watched the happy movie, their blood vessels relaxed, allowing for healthy blood flow to the heart. The surprise factor here isn’t that the blood vessels relaxed, but that they relaxed to such a significant degree in the laughing state. All the viewers except one showed a 30 to 50 percent expansion in blood vessel diameter when watching the comedy compared to when they watched the drama.
Vasoconstriction can lead to all sorts of problems, since the endothelium not only regulates blood flow, but also plays a role in blood thickening and inflammation, factors that contribute to heart disease. As study director Dr. Michael Miller, explains, “The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so it is very possible that laughing on a regular basis may be useful to incorporate as part of an overall healthy lifestyle to prevent heart disease.”
According to Dr. Miller, “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium after laughing was consistent and similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise or statin use.” It’s an interesting comparison, given that, unless you have preexisting heart disease, statins are a largely useless and often dangerous class of drugs prescribed to regulate cholesterol. His comments can be interpreted to reinforce the message that there’s yet one more reason to forego Lipitor and spend the money on a subscription to Mad instead.
Dr. Miller’s team also conducted research 10 years ago that found a tie-in between having a dour disposition and developing heart disease. In the earlier research, 300 subjects filled out a questionnaire indicating whether they found a series of situations humorous. The subjects who already had heart disease found 40 percent fewer of the scenarios amusing, compared to those without heart disease.
Other recent studies also have found links between laughter and cardiovascular benefits. One, out of Osaka, Japan, studied the effects of both laughing and music on blood pressure. The researchers followed a group of 79 subjects for three months. The subjects were divided into three groups — one group attended activities that made them laugh, another listened to music and sang, and the rest conducted life as usual. The subjects in the laughing and music groups lowered their blood pressure significantly right after their laughing or music sessions. At the end of the three months, their blood pressure remained lower even during normal activities.5 Those who conducted life as normal experienced no such benefit. All in all, it’s a ringing confirmation of the chapter, “It’s the Thought that Kills” in Jon Barron’s book, Lessons from the Miracle Doctors.
Meanwhile, another recent, large-scale study gave pleasure-lovers and hedonists one more happy health tidbit. The research, from the University of Cambridge in England, confirmed earlier studies showing that chocolate helps the heart, but unlike the previous research, this one quantifies the benefits chocolate confers. The data on more than 100,000 individuals shows that the most avid chocolate aficionados have a whopping 37 percent lower incidence of heart disease and 20 percent fewer strokes compared with those who avoid chocolate. But the researchers warn that enjoying a honking hunk of devil’s food cake daily won’t afford you cardiovascular protection because most chocolate confections contain so much sugar and fat that it counteracts the benefits conferred by the antioxidants in cacao. A little pure, unsweetened, organic cacao is the best bet to benefit health.
Taken together, these studies send a strong message to do the Bobby McFerrin thing: don’t worry and be happy. As the singer says, “In every life there’s a little trouble; when you worry you make it double.”
If you have a hard time getting yourself to laugh every day, consider joining one of the more than 6000 laughter clubs scattered throughout 60 nations worldwide — and enjoy a bit of organic, pure cacao enroute to the meeting. It’s certainly a healthier and happier prescription than taking medication to lift your mood or heal your heart condition.
1 Torsoli, Albertina. “Laughter Helps Blood Vessels, Aids Heart.” 28 August 2011. Bloomberg. 1 September 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-28/laughter-helps-blood-vessels-aids-heart-health-study-finds.html>
2 “Saving Private Ryan.” Rotten Tomatoes. 1 September 2011. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/saving_private_ryan/>
3 “There’s Something About Mary.” Rotten Tomatoes. 1 September 2011. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/theres_something_about_mary/>
4 “Laughter has a positive impact on vascular function.” 28 August 2011. European Society of Cardiology. 1 September 2011. <http://www.escardio.org/about/press/press-releases/esc11-paris/Pages/laughter-vascular-function.aspx.>
5 Hendrick, Bill. “Music and Laughter May Help Lower Blood Pressure.” 25 March 2011. WebMD. 1 September 2011. < http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/news/20110325/music-and-laughter-may-help-lower-blood-pressure>