[Paleopsych] NYT: Side Effects: Laugh Your Way to Good Health and a Longer Life

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Tue Apr 19 13:26:22 UTC 2005

Side Effects: Laugh Your Way to Good Health and a Longer Life 

    "Laughing turns to crying."

    That's what my grandmother used to say when kids got too excited. I
    guess the idea was if you had too much fun, something bad would
    happen. Run around the house and you'll fall down. Get giddy on a
    trampoline, someone will end up in a cast.

    This was in line with her other pronouncements. Go out with wet hair
    you'll get pneumonia. Don't wear rubbers on your shoes, you'll get
    rheumatic fever. Have too much fun, and someone will get irritated and
    say, "Laughing turns to crying."

    It just occurred to me in the last day or so that maybe she was wrong.
    I'm quite late on this because I've had to overcome my distaste for
    happiness studies.

    It happened when I was reading a study that's being published today in
    The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's called
    "Positive affect and health-related neuroendocrine, cardiovascular and
    inflammatory processes."

    As soon as I saw the title I thought, I know what positive affect
    means, and nothing good can come of this. You already know how these
    studies are going to turn out. All the happy people will be healthier,
    live longer and have more sex than the unhappy people. That's why
    they're happy.

    Or the other way round, which means that you, too - you unhappy masses
    huddled under comforters watching old movies and eating the wrong
    things instead of exercising with good friends before a vegan dinner
    and a night at some soul-enriching cultural event - you too, could be
    healthier and live longer and have more sex. If you would only cheer

    Dr. Andrew Steptoe, Dr. Jane Wardle and Dr. Michael Marmot, of
    University College London, review some of the previous affirmations of
    the value of being affirmative at the beginning of their paper.

    To wit: Negative affect is associated with a greater risk of heart
    disease, diabetes and disability. Positive affect, as judged by
    writings of nuns at age 22, is connected to greater longevity - for
    the nuns. Happy Finns live longer - than unhappy Finns. Even worse, "A
    lack of positive affect rather than negative affect predicts
    mortality, stroke and the development of disability in older adults."

    You don't even have to be depressed to fare worse; a lack of happiness
    will wreck your golden years. Let a smile be your umbrella - or else.

    The English researchers continued in this vein. They considered that
    unhappiness could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, or that the two
    could be linked in basic physiological processes. They don't actually
    pin down cause and effect, but they do say that they are looking at
    ways "psychosocial factors stimulate biological systems."

    To investigate these connections, they asked 116 men and 100 women to
    record how happy they felt at given times during the day. They also
    tested blood pressure and heart rate, and cortisol levels in saliva.
    Cortisol is a stress hormone, so the less the better in terms of all
    sorts of health problems, the researchers say.

    And they conducted mental stress tests and took blood samples to
    determine response to that kind of stress. The tests were not too
    stressful. There were no beds of snakes like in "Fear Factor." The
    subjects had to do a test on a computer involving words and color, and
    another one that required them to trace a mirror image. Naturally, the
    happier people were better off. Even setting aside actual depression,
    positive affect trumped lack of positive affect.

    At first I thought more bad news for the unhappy. Then I thought,
    here's a chance to prove my grandmother wrong. And if she's wrong
    about one thing maybe I can stop worrying about rheumatic fever.

    I'm not thinking of happiness, exactly, but laughing. That's a bit
    like being happy, but it's not quite as high a bar. People with
    insufficient positive affect can still laugh. I know a lot of unhappy
    people with great senses of humor.

    There have been claims for a long time that laughter has health
    benefits. Unfortunately my vision was blurred by the happiness issue.

    If we can include laughing though, I think I can get on board, with
    one small qualification. I need to know what kind of laughter.

    If it's gentle, warm laughter just because life is wonderful and
    babies gurgle, I'm out of luck.

    But, how about laughing when somebody slips on the ice or when
    Triumph, the insult dog, is really nasty to people? Can that be
    healthy? I certainly hope so.

    Then there really may be a way out of the whole negative
    affect/neuroendocrine complex. Plus, my grandmother would be wrong, at
    least on one thing.

    We'd still have to tackle her theory of immunology, "You have to eat a
    peck of dirt before you die."

    I'm pretty sure that one's true. What I'm hoping is that you don't
    have to do it all at once.

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