two older people smiling
(Photo/ CC BY 2.0)

Seriously: Laughter is good for your health and well-being

A 50-year-old woman has a heart attack and is brought to the hospital. While in the operating room, she has a near-death experience and sees God.  

“Is my time up?” she asks God.  

God replies, “No, you have another 47 years, three months and five days to live.”  

Upon recovery, the woman decides to stay in the hospital and have a face-lift, liposuction, breast implants and tummy tuck. She even has someone come in to change her hair color and whiten her teeth. Since she has so much more time to live, she figures she might as well make the most of it. After being released from the hospital and crossing the street on her way home, she gets hit by a bus and dies. 

“What was that?!” she asks God. 

“What?” responded God. “You died.” 

“You said I would live another 47 years!” she replies. 

God thinks for a second. “Oh!” he says. “I didn’t recognize you!”

The cliché that laughter is the best medicine has its roots in Proverbs: “A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” Henri de Mondeville, a professor of surgery in the 1300s, saw the benefits of humor during people’s recovery from operations. Norman Cousins, a professor of mine who taught medical humanities at UCLA Medical School, promoted laughter as a key component of good health and healing.

What is the body’s response to laughter? When a person laughs there is a transient rise in blood pressure and heart rate, followed by deep breathing and increased oxygen uptake. As a more relaxed state develops, endorphins rise, the dopamine reward system in the brain is activated, and cortisol (the stress hormone) drops.

A review of the healing benefits of humor and laughter can be found in a publication from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than two dozen benefits are described. Among the highlights:

Laughter helps the immune system by raising immunoglobulin levels and increasing the natural activity of killer cells, which contain particles that can kill tumor cells or virus-infected cells. (Don’t assume laughter will substitute for getting your Covid vaccines, though.) 

Laughter increases pain tolerance, and it can improve well-being in cancer patients. 

Laughter can delay cardiovascular complications from diabetes. In patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation, the propensity to laugh was correlated with fewer heart-rhythm problems and lower risk of another heart attack.  

Laughter can help with weight loss, too! Ten to 15 minutes of laughter per day may burn 10 to 40 extra calories.

Laughter improves mood. For those with depression and anxiety, laughter can make you feel happier.

Ready for another joke? Patient: “Doctor, I get heartburn every time I eat birthday cake.”  Doctor: “Next time remove the candles.”

Laughter improves the quality of our lives by helping us to connect with other people. Careful listening is required to joke with family, friends and strangers. As long as one is not laughing at the expense of someone else, a spot-on joke conveys unique understanding and empathy. 

Of course, Jews have found laughter to be an effective way of coping with difficult situations and dealing with adversity. Some point to that as a factor behind the success of many Jewish comedians, particularly in the Borscht Belt days.

The physician and comedian Patch Adams once remarked that children laugh 400 times a day and adults only 17 times per day. Maybe because laughter can be infectious, I certainly laugh more when I’m around my granddaughters. 

Here are some other ways to enhance your day with humor if you don’t have grandchildren nearby: Read comics or a lighthearted novel, watch a sitcom, listen to funny podcasts or take in a comedy act. Consider laughter yoga, in which people practice laughter as a group. (In fact, the JCC of San Francisco has a Zoom class called, quite simply, Laughter Yoga, scheduled for Jan. 18. For details, visit Or simply give yourself permission to laugh more frequently. 

Now here’s a parting joke for you: A girl’s parents bring her to the pediatrician’s office. The girl has a stick of celery up her nose, a banana in one ear and a carrot in the other ear. The doctor admonishes her, “You’re not eating properly!”

Whatever your circumstances might be, I hope that your days will be infused with laughter.

Dr. Jerry Saliman

Jerry Saliman, MD, retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career and is now a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo.