I was looking through some family photos over the Thanksgiving holiday and was struck by the fact that in almost every photo with children in it, there would be at least one child with his or her head thrown back in laughter. It gave me pause to consider how long it had been since I had had a spontaneous belly laugh or given in to a fit of the giggles.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of laughter. Surprisingly, the benefits are both psychological and physiological in nature; in other words, it is not just your mood that benefits, but also your body. It has even been noted that many of the benefits of laughter are similar to those of aerobic exercise.

This is important information for the elderly and their caregivers who are often dealing with serious health issues and increased stress. From a psychological perspective, humor has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, tension and feelings of depression and loneliness. 

Studies show that it improves self-esteem, restores hope and energy and provides a sense of empowerment. Plus, there is no co-pay, no needle and you don't need to wear a paper gown.

 

All in good humor

Humor comes in many flavors, and we all have our favorites — be it slapstick, dry, droll or deadpan. Likewise, laughter ranges from a fleeting smirk to helpless hysteria. 

Almost all of us can relate to the inability to control our laughter at some inappropriate moment or the laugh that is so long and deep that our abs get sore and we begin to weep. The physical requirements of laughter — the huffing and puffing, the shaking, the bending — all produce benefits that involve many of the major systems in the body. 

Research has shown that laughter can improve:

•Respiration;

•Circulation; 

•Resistance to stress hormones; 

•Production of endorphins — Endorphins make us feel good, like a runner’s high; 

•Tolerance to pain;

•Immune response; 

•Mental functioning; 

Despite all of the benefits, laughter does have some risk for older adults with some specific medical conditions and those who have just had major surgery. But for most of us, laughter is good medicine. 

 

Daily dosage

It's clear that laughter is good for us, but how do we get laughter into our day, especially when dealing with disease, disability or other serious matters? Here are 10 suggestions:

•Most of us know someone who always seems to see the funny side of a situation. Invite them over or seek them out.

•Rent a movie — Try something silly with stars like The Three Stooges, Lucille Ball or Steve Martin.

•Watch your favorite TV-comedy show.

•Read jokes — Buy a book of jokes, or download them from the Internet and read them aloud.

•Cartoons and comics — Read the funny pages in your local newspaper or favorite magazine. 

•See if you can flex your funny bone by coming up with a caption for a funny picture or cartoon.

•Read (or listen to) something by your favorite humorist: Mark Twain, Erma Bombeck, Dave Berry. (If you can't think of a humorist, call your local library or search on-line.)

•Recount a funny story of your own to your family or friends, or write it down and send it to someone.

•Create puns, plays on words or knock-knock jokes.

•Hang out with a baby, toddler or younger child for a few hours  — they can teach us all a lot about laughing.

 

Takes practice

Like any habit, finding the humor in a situation takes practice. Once you get the hang of it, however, it can make a big difference in how you view the world and how people view you. 

For those dealing with serious illness, disability or illness, remember that others are inspired by those who meet challenges with good humor and grace. 

If you are providing care for a loved one, making room for some laughter can feel like another to-do that you just don't have time for. That's a signal that you really need to take a break for your own good and that of your loved one. 

Have a friend (the one who thinks life is funny) take over for a few hours, or call an agency to arrange respite care and get yourself to a funny movie or laughter-yoga class. Like Joel Goodman said, "Seven days without laughter makes one weak."

MARLA BECK, a Magnolia resident, is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. She was named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2012 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.