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Laughter is serious business when it comes to living long and healthy lives. Some experts have gone so far as to quantify laughter's particular biological causes as well as its effects on health and well-being. This field of study, called gelotology, has quantified claims that laughing may improve heart health, bolster immunity and lessen pain. Other studies have focused on laughter's sociological role of building group mentality or its psychological role of easing tension and lessening depression.
A principle component of gelotology is the study of how and why laughter even occurs. Building on the conventional wisdom that people cannot tickle themselves, scientific inquiry in recent decades has led to discoveries about which parts of the brain are responsible for laughter. According to a report filed by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1998, a patient undergoing brain surgery began to laugh as soon as a small section of her frontal lobe was stimulated by electrical current. This hair-trigger response is believed to be part of a broader network that includes wide-ranging parts of the brain responsible for movement, cognition and emotions.
Another consideration of gelotology is what causes laughter in the first place. A few camps stack up in this regard, with some believing that genetics has imbedded this way of responding to new stimuli. Others believe, however, that laughter is more of a conditioned response to any number of new experiences — from physical stimuli like tickling to more subtle causes like something touching the sensibilities in just the right way.
Regardless of the causes, the University of Maryland Medical Center concluded in 2000 that laughter and having a sense of humor could contribute to better heart health. Of 300 study participants — half with heart disease and half without — researchers found that those with heart disease appeared to be less likely to find reasons to laugh. Other gelotology studies also have showed that comedic environs may improve stress levels, pain and immune response. Specifically, laughter and insouciance appears to cause the body to release less catecholamine hormones — the so-called fight-or-flight hormones that can raise stress levels and tax the immune system.
A major branch of gelotology is called psychoneuroimmunology, which involves professionals from several fields looking for links between certain emotional states and health. Several types of researchers participate in this field, from psychologists and neuroscientists to immunologists and physicians. Though some disease and injury cannot be avoided by simply nurturing a healthy sense of humor, the consensus of these scientists is that a direct link exists between happy attitudes and healthy bodies.