My 7-month-old daughter is at the stage where she likes to grab things and try to shove them in her mouth. One of her favorite targets? The springy curls of her 5-year-old brother. We were playing on the floor together when she crawled over to him and yanked a handful of hair.
"Owwww! Haley hurt me!" Ryan's eyes filled with tears, and I knew I had two seconds to short-circuit a meltdown.
"Haley!" I said, gently extricating her chubby fingers from Ryan's curls. "Stop beating up your brother." Then I turned to Ryan. "Can you believe a baby is beating up a 5-year-old?" I shook my head. "That is totally crazy!"
Ryan stopped crying and started to laugh. "Yeah, that is crazy! I can't believe a little baby is beating me up!" Not only did we avert a crisis, now Ryan and I laugh every time Haley "brings the pain."
As a mom, I try to put a funny spin on things not only for my kids' benefit, but for my own. But I was surprised to learn that laughing not only makes me feel better, it's actually helping protect my health.
"Laughter and health are pretty closely related," says therapist James Masica, a public speaker who leads laughter workshops for a variety of audiences. "Laughter is a physical act-it's different than comedy or humor. The physical act of laughter changes our body chemistry in a number of significant ways. Basically everything that can be made better is made better-your blood pressure drops, your immune system is bolstered, serotonin (a brain chemical that produces a feeling of relaxation) and endorphins are released."
Published research has proven a link between laughter and immune systems, says Mary Bennett, director of the Western Kentucky University School of Nursing in Bowling Green. "There have been several studies looking at different aspects of laughter and health that show a brief period of laughter boosts the immune system, which fights off disease and helps fight off cancer," she says.
"But we don't know what the dose of laughter needs to be and we don't know how long the effect lasts."
In addition, laughter has a beneficial effect on cardiovascular function.
"When you laugh, you take nice deep breaths, you get more oxygen and your blood pressure and heart rate go up," Bennett says. "Then afterwards, they drop. There's a tension/release effect."
That effect also may help with how stressed you feel.
Bennett conducted studies where people reported their stress levels before and after watching a funny video. Those who watched a funny video (compared with those who watched a travel video) reported less stress afterwards. Those who watched the travel video reported no change in stress levels. The change in perceived stress was attributed to laughing.
"This isn't just about watching a funny video or listening to a comedian," says Bennett. "You have to laugh to get the related improvement. … There's something about the physiology and the mental release of laughing that works."
Surprisingly, even "fake" laughter can produce these kinds of benefits. One often-cited study found that adults who forced themselves to laugh for one minute reported an improved mood afterwards.
"We think something funny happens and then we laugh," says Masica. "But think of first laughing and then things seem to be funny. The body doesn't know and doesn't care if we're laughing at our favorite comedy or because we decide to push air out of our diaphragm."
Simulated laughter changes your body chemistry just like real laughter, she says. "Your stress hormones go down, the world looks brighter, and you find yourself less annoyed and less hassled at the petty annoyances of life."
More people are taking time to laugh-laughter clubs have sprung up throughout the country and "laughter yoga" is gaining popularity, too. With laughter yoga, created by a family physician in India in 1998, people get together to do a series of exercises to stimulate laughter; even forced laughter soon morphs into spontaneous laughter.
It may sound funny, pardon the pun, to get together with other people to laugh, but adherents say it works.
"You might feel silly before you do it or when you start doing it, but it feels good," says Masica.
Even with laughter clubs and laughter yoga, though, adults laugh far less often than children. "The ratio is about one-tenth," says Masica. "Children laugh about 200 to 300 times a day while adults laugh 12 to 20 times a day."
So how can you boost your own laughter quotient?
First, make an effort to look at the funny side of things.
"You've got to cultivate a mental atmosphere within yourself," says Masica. "You can choose your response to what happens to you. So when that guy on the freeway cuts you off, you have a choice. You can choose to pound the steering wheel or you can laugh and say, 'What are you going to do?'"
In addition, "find out what pushes your laughter button and go expose yourself to as much of it as you can," says Bennett. "A daily dose of laughter is a great thing."
For me, there's nothing like the sound of my children laughing together. Their laughter is truly joyous-and contagious. If it's keeping me healthy, too, that's just a wonderful bonus.
Kelly James-Enger laughs as much as she possibly can from Downers Grove-especially when she's hanging out with her mom, who passed on a goofy sense of humor.
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.