By Dr. Tim Millea
Catholic Health Care Today
Near the heart-warming conclusion of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a repentant Ebenezer Scrooge makes a vow to the Ghost of Christmas Future: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” What is the “it” that Scrooge intends to keep? Of course, he is referring to the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of giving, forgiving, selflessness and togetherness. And, most importantly, the profound sense of joy that accompanies the miracle of the Nativity. The laughter and good humor of Christmas elevate our moods and enhance our relationships. Even better, if we follow Scrooge’s promise and maintain that humor year-round, the benefits are not only spiritual, but physical and psychological as well.
We all recognize that a good laugh makes us feel good, whether it be a friend’s joke, a funny circumstance or a comedy show. But why do we feel better? Considerable study of this question has taken place in the medical literature over the past few decades, with convincing evidence of the positive effects of humor for our overall well-being.
Physically, the simple act of laughing increases the intake of air, which stimulates the heart and lungs and relaxes muscles. The brain also reaps the benefits of laughter. In 2017, a group of Finnish neuroscientists used PET scans of the brain to assess the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good chemicals,” in a group of people before and after watching “laughter-inducing comedy clips with their close friends.” Multiple areas of the brain showed a notable increase in endorphin release. This study points to the importance of laughter as a stimulant of elevated mood and the benefit of what the author describes as “social laughter.” When we enjoy humor with our friends, the effect is increased significantly.
A growing body of data indicates that laughter enhances the function of the immune system, including the increased production of antibodies and immune cells that defend against infections and illnesses. Such maladies are more likely if a person is experiencing significant stress in their life, but when humor and laughter are common, the level of stress hormones decreases and a calmer and more relaxed state of mind results.
Similar positive effects for a joy-filled life are described for pain management, mood enhancement and the overall sense of well-being. Individuals dealing with anxiety and depression experience an emotional and mental escape when incorporating humor into their daily routine.
Our ultimate aim of a long and happy life is also more likely with a commitment to joy and laughter. In a 2016 study of more than 53,000 Norwegians over 15 years, those with a well-developed sense of humor, assessed with standardized psychological testing, lived notably longer. Their mortality rate was significantly lower, particularly in women. Of note was the finding that this protective effect in the good-humored subjects was present up to 85 years of age.
Just as the Christmas season can enhance our relationships with family and friends, continuing to prioritize the importance of social bonds throughout the year is to our benefit. As a social tool to build interpersonal relationships and strengthen connections, humor is very powerful. Shared laughter unites people and that sense of unity, mutual support and belonging is a valuable part of a happier and healthier life for all involved.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be joyful. While it is important to maintain a healthy diet, get good exercise and sleep well, the absence of humor and laughter can offset those factors. In our current time of conflict, controversy and confrontation, it is certainly difficult to remain consistently joyful. However, with the recognition that God is in charge and that our time here is temporary, we can be reassured that an attitude of gratitude and happiness will benefit all of us for eternity. In the words of St. Philip Neri, often described as the “patron saint of joy,” “A cheerful and glad spirit attains to perfection much more readily than a melancholy spirit.”
As 2024 begins, may we all follow Scrooge’s lead and commit to a daily pursuit of humor and laughter, both individually and with our families and friends. There is no better way to live and display our faith than to bring joy to others with our good humor and good health. As the usually solemn but occasionally playful St. Padre Pio said, “Serve the Lord with laughter.”
(Dr. Tim Millea is president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Medical Guild and a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.)