Anticipate the positive—and health benefits may follow
Lee Berk, DrPH, talks with two graduate students from Japan during the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
New research suggests that, much like exercise, scheduling humor into your day could be beneficial to your health.
Loma Linda University researchers have demonstrated that the simple anticipation of a scheduled positive experience, like humorous events, can initiate positive changes in neuroendocrine and stress hormone response. In other words, looking forward to a happy experience may be good for you.
Lee S. Berk, DrPH, presented this research in San Francisco in April at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) to the American Physiological Society section.
Since then, interest from the media has not stopped, says Dr. Berk, who is an associate professor in LLU’s School of Public Health and associate research professor in the School of Medicine.
Specifically, the study showed that endorphin and human growth hormone levels rise in expectation of an upcoming positive experience—that is, even before the event occurs.
The findings have drawn attention the world over, with media from as far away as England, Ireland, Japan, India, and Australia covering the research.
“The lay public is looking for confirmation that certain aspects of a lifestyle are, indeed, beneficial for happiness, health, and longevity. They have heard something about nutrition and exercise, but this is different,” Dr. Berk says. “The public sees the ongoing problems of wars, disease, the environment, and now even the weather. As a result, people are personally trying to regain some sense of control in their lives, and having the perspective from a ‘merry heart’ seems to help.”
This study adds to research that has been showing for years that laughter really is good medicine.
The findings about anticipation are based on a study in which healthy males were randomly divided into two groups. Throughout the study both groups were treated the same, except the experimental group watched a self-selected humorous video, and the control group did not. The participants were notified three days in advance which group they would belong to.
Researchers drew blood from both groups at several intervals—before, during, and after the hour in which participants either watched the video or waited in a neutral “non-stimulating room,” as determined from prior research.
The blood tests revealed that the expectation of the video positively affected the viewers even before it started.
“The blood drawn from experimental subjects just before they watched the video had 27 percent more beta-endorphins and 87 percent more human growth hormone, compared to blood from the control group for the same time points,” says Dr. Berk. “This is in parallel to previous research findings where we saw anticipatory changes in mood states such as depression, anger, tension, fatigue, confusion, and vigor prior to the event.”
The higher levels of these positive hormones in the video-watching group were sustained not only through duration of the video but also after.
Dr. Berk conducted the research along with James Westengard, MT(ASCP), a research specialist, department of pathology and human anatomy, LLU School of Medicine, and Stanley A. Tan, MD, PhD, of Oakcrest Health Research Institute. The researchers are working to not only replicate this study but are adding the element of gene expression.
This latest research continues to build on previous studies with humor and laughter that these researchers have conducted since 1985, according to Dr. Berk. The body of work shows that “mirthful” laughter—laughter arising from happiness or joy instead of other emotions such as embarrassment and anxiety—optimizes the activities of specific components of the immune system and appears to offset physiological and mood states associated with the symptoms of chronic stress. Chronic stress can suppress immunity, especially antiviral and antitumor mechanisms such as natural killer cell activity.
Specifically, Loma Linda University researchers previously have demonstrated that during a humorous laughter event, there is increased secretion of growth hormone and decreased secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. When secreted chronically due to stress, epinephrine and cortisol can be detrimental, while growth hormone appears to optimize specific aspects of immunity.
“The physiological effects of a single one-hour session viewing a humorous video appear to last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours in different individuals,” Dr. Berk says, “while other studies have shown that a daily 30-minute exposure can produce profound and longer-lasting changes in these measures.”
Some of the published research studies from other investigators worldwide document the potential for benefit in individuals with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergy, autoimmune disease, negative mood states, and chronic stress.
As research on the anticipation of upcoming happy events continues at Loma Linda University, the public will likely continue to take notice of those lifestyle behaviors that will influence happiness and health.
“I’m intrigued to see the interest that people around the world have in bona fide, viable medical science supporting the belief that happiness and laughter are good for your mental and physical health,” Dr. Berk says. “I guess this should not be too surprising; after all, we are told in Proverbs 17:22 that a merry heart, if you please, is actually good medicine.”
By Heather Reifsnyder