Humor, Loneliness, and Gratitude—How They Can Affect Your Health

Laughter  stimulates organs, increasing our intake of oxygen-rich air, and increases endorphins that are released by our brains which dampen pain signals and produce a feeling of happiness. A hearty laugh can cool down a stress response, and help with muscle relaxation.

The long-term effects of laughter are even more impressive. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can improve our immune systems. “Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity. In contrast, positive thoughts actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.” Humor, positive thoughts, and laughter can make it easier to cope with difficult situations, help us connect with other people, and may lessen feelings of depression and anxiety as they improve our mood.

Loneliness isn’t just a sad state of mind – it may actually trigger changes in our cells that can make us sick, a new study suggests. Scientists studied loneliness and changes in the cells of older adults. The feeling of loneliness leads to “fight-or-flight” stress signals, which can ultimately affect the production of white blood cells, the cells that help us fight infections. Psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Lorber explained the study, “This is the first study I have seen that has actually gone into the details of showing loneliness leading to a decreased production of leukocytes (disease-fighting cells).”

Social isolation, one cause of loneliness, also causes our bodies to produce higher levels of stress hormones. The study shows that there are biological consequences from being lonely, and that the results were specific to loneliness—not depression, stress, or [lack of] social support. “This is showing [that] social isolation is causing our bodies to sense certain kinds of danger” says Lorber. “For human beings, social isolation is dangerous.”

Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what we receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness in our lives. In the process, we usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside ourselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, enjoy good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

We can apply gratitude to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of our current level of feeling gratitude, it’s a quality that we can successfully cultivate further.

In one study, researchers asked participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, a second group wrote about daily irritations, and the third wrote about events that had affected them neither positively nor negatively. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer medical visits than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack, and feelings of gratitude, as with many other things in our lives, grow stronger with use and practice.

What you can do! Tell a joke, read the comics, hang around people with positive attitudes. Visit an isolated neighbor, invite friends to tea, volunteer as a home visitor or driver through your church or community service organization like Friends in Action, At Home Downeast, or Neighborcare. Write a thank-you note, cultivate gratitude by praying or meditating, count your blessings. You just might feel better and find a smile on your face.

Your Health Matters is a monthly health column by the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and Healthy Peninsula. Sandra Phoenix is a family nurse practitioner and a member of the Healthy Peninsula  Advisory Board.