When was the last time you let out a deep belly laugh, one that brought tears to your eyes and made your abs a little sore? And do you recall how contented you felt afterwards? At that moment you were tapping into one of the oldest and most powerful medicines. And if you have ever sung along to a catchy tune or felt relaxed after hearing a sonata, you have experienced the power of music. Beyond just fun, music and laughter can play key roles in reducing stress, boosting immunity, and improving health and wellbeing.
For the past several decades doctors and researchers have been exploring the healing power of laughter to reduce pain, relieve stress, boost the immune system, facilitate digestion, and improve circulation. In a world that seems more stress-inducing everyday, nourishing ourselves with enjoyable and relaxing activities that balance our nervous systems and improve our health is more important than ever. Here are some of the ways music and laughter can contribute to healing.
The Healing Power of Laughter
Laughter has been studied for its therapeutic properties for some time. One of the oldest known proponents of laughter therapy was Norman Cousins. In his book Anatomy of an Illness he wrote about his experience of healing a crippling illness with a combination of humor therapy and vitamin supplements. One of his many profound results was discovering that 10 minutes of mirthful laughter allowed him to sleep for two hours without pain, something that was otherwise impossible at that time.
Another proponent of laughter therapy, Dr Fry, examined the physiological effects of laughter and inspiring the beginning of gelotology, the science of laughter. Dr Fry successfully proved that laughter provides physical exercise and stimulates the production of painkilling endorphins.
Since then, many research studies have concluded that laughter has innumerable physical, mental, and emotional health benefits. Some of most obvious benefits are that strong laughter can relieve physical and emotional stress, balancing the autonomic nervous system; improve circulation and heart health, raise HDL “good” cholesterol levels, and reduce blood pressure; stimulate the digestion and metabolism; reduce perceived pain and increase the pain threshold through stimulating endorphin production; and provide mild aerobic exercise. Deep laughter inspires deeper breathing, which increases respiration and supports the health of all the organs.
And the most long-lasting benefit of frequent full-body laughter is its impact on the immune system. On a physical level, calming the nervous system, boosting metabolism, reducing inflammation, and stimulating endorphin release are all vital contributors to a thriving immune system. The stimulation of the abdomen, diaphragm, and lungs improves respiration, which also boosts immunity. On a more subtle level, laughter helps put us in a positive mood and inspires positive thoughts. When we are in negative emotional and mental states, chemical reactions are triggered that increase stress levels and depress immunity. When we are in positive mental and emotional states, stress-busting neuropeptides are released, naturally boosting immunity. Basically, laughter is one of the ways that we tell our brains and bodies that we are happy to be alive and want to keep being healthy, and even become healthier.
Music for the Soul
Music is also an incredibly healing therapy, and the use of music in therapeutic applications has been studied in clinical and healing arts settings. Music has profound effects on the body and brain, and is useful in a variety of healing and relaxing contexts.
Much like laughter, listening to the right kinds of music has been shown to reduce stress, increase positive brain chemical production and release, improve memory, relieve depression, and boost immunity.
One study found that the form and structure of music supports disabled and stressed children to relax, feel more secure, perform tasks, and respond in more positive ways to their environments and other people. Another study found that listening to music supports elderly people to feel greater self-esteem and less depression and loneliness.
In the field of memory and cognition “The Mozart Effect” has been noted, where students’ test scores improve after listening to Mozart and other complex musical compositions, perhaps because music processing and memory trigger many of same areas of the brain. This tendency to improve memory and brain function can also help to reduce stress, increase creativity, and support overall mental health.
Music and Laughter for Stress Reduction
Chronic stress has reached pandemic proportions in the modern world. While small bouts of occasional stress are a normal part of any healthy life, chronic stress is debilitating to the body and brain and severely depresses the digestion, metabolism, reproductive system, and immune system. Chronic stress has been implicated as causing or contributing to nearly every major disease, through its negative effects on the nervous system, the way it increases inflammation, and how it decimates the body’s ability to heal.
Both laughter and music relieve stress. In the long run they reduce the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. They stimulate the release of endorphins and dopamine, the brain chemicals that lead to relaxed, contented, and pleasurable feeling-states in the brain and body. Laughter and singing also provide mild aerobic exercise, which increases endorphin and dopamine release even more.
With vigorous laugher and upbeat music, the nervous system is first positively stimulated, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, then relaxed and calmed, lowering heart rate and reducing blood pressure in the long term. Music and laughter soothe physical and emotional tension, and increase circulation and muscle relaxation, reducing the external symptoms of stress as much as the hormonal stimulants.
Researchers at the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine found that people who took part in bimonthly group sessions consisting of music or laughter exercises experienced an average of a five to six point reduction in systolic blood pressure, a marker for stress levels and heart health. Laughing and listening to music causes a release of nitric oxide, improving the functioning of the epithelial layer (the lining of the blood vessels), and causing it to expand by as much as 30 percent. More open blood vessels means greater blood flow, lower blood pressure, and less stress.
Laughing In the Face of Cancer
A study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology found that laughter therapy is a useful adjunct for treating cancer. Cancer patients who are encouraged to laugh regularly experience less stress during their treatments, improved quality of life, and tend to have higher recovery and survival rates. Both interactive music therapy techniques, such as playing instruments and singing, and receptive music therapy techniques like listening to live or recorded music can decrease stress, anxiety, and pain, and increase relaxation and positivity in oncology patients.
The Power of Connection
While just listening to recorded music or watching a comedic movie can support health, the healing benefits of music and laughter are increased when there is also the possibility of connection. Connection with other people increases the production of oxytocin, one of the hormones that relaxes the nervous system and supports fertility and healing. Laughing with other people satisfies the basic human need to connect in positive and pleasurable ways, and dispels the isolation feelings so common in today’s world, especially in people living with a disease.
To enhance the power of music and laughter with connection, participate in laughter yoga group classes or take improv comedy classes, go to karaoke clubs or singing circles to make music with other people, go to live music concerts with friends, and find other ways to experience music and laughter in real time with other people.
Finding the Right Kinds of Music and Laughter
While any laughter can be helpful, there is a huge difference between sarcastic or judgmental laughter at someone’s expense, and genuine heartfelt laughter generated by shared positive experience. And not all music is healing. Discordant music or music with strongly negative messages can actually detract from wellbeing. This doesn’t mean the music has to be calm. Upbeat positive music that makes you feel good is also supportive, especially if it inspires you to sing along. But heavy, clashing, dour, or very rapid music is not usually conducive to healing.
It’s helpful to attune the music you listen to with the time of day. Upbeat, positive music in the morning is a great way to start your day in a positive and awake yet relaxed state. If you have a stressful day, calming ambient music with nature sounds, flutes, singing bowls, or gentle chanting can be very helpful to calm the nervous system. Alternatively, singing along with upbeat music can help clear out the day’s stress before dinner or an evening activity, and is great to support a long commute if you have to drive to and from work. And before bed, slow quiet classical or ambient music can put you into a relaxed state for regenerative sleep.
Active listening is an important part of musical relaxation. Whether it is live or recorded, practicing consciously listening to your music with full attention, even for a song or two, can put your body and mind in a meditative, balanced state.
Stress is truly a killer, with chronic stress a contributing factor to many diseases. But thankfully it is actually possible to laugh and sing stress away. Humans have been tapping into the healing power of music and laughter since the dawn of civilization, as evidenced by statues of humorous deities and scripts of bawdy plays. And modern science is revealing that both music and laughter offer profound physical, emotional, mental, and energetic benefits to balance the effects of modern life. Perhaps it is possible to laugh and sing our way into our happy and healthy elder