MONDAY, Dec. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- It's no secret that laughter is good for you and, even when indulged in liberally, is gloriously free of side effects. Now, new research suggests that humor has another benefit: The mere act of anticipation may make people feel better hours before they get around to watching a funny video.
But you may not have to plan a Mel Brooks movie marathon to get a mental pick-me-up. Some experts suspect that any enjoyable event -- such as a relaxing afternoon at home or a visit with friends -- could spark the same positive reaction beforehand.
One thing is clear: Our knowledge about humor is fuzzy. Scientists don't even know why we laugh.
There are plenty of theories. Laughter could be a simple stress reducer, a kind of natural Valium. Or, "It could give off social cues and be a way of building society. We laugh to connect with each other," says Steven M. Sultanoff, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who teaches about the therapeutic effects of humor.
Some experts suggest that laughter helps people cope with the surprises of life. "We laugh when we perceive things as incongruous. That may be a way of dealing with things in the world that don't fit together," says Sultanoff.
Laughter is part of every culture, and humans have known for centuries that humor is good for the body, says Lee Berk, professor of family medicine at the University of California at Irvine.
"A merry heart does good like a medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones," says the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. More recently, Laughter Is the Best Medicine became a regular joke feature in Reader's Digest.
Berk has found that laughter -- the kind associated with mirth -- does indeed affect the body by reducing stress hormones.
Berk and fellow researchers told a group of 10 men that they would be watching a video by the comedian Gallagher in three days. The subjects all had indicated earlier they liked his humor.
Researchers then gave written tests of mood to the men two days before the video and immediately after the viewing. Berk reported his findings at last month's annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
"Tension decreased two days before. Depression decreased, anger decreased," Berk says.
By the numbers, levels of depression went down 51 percent, and confusion dropped 36 percent.
After watching the video, self-perceived levels of depression, fatigue and tension went down even more; depression and anger dropped 98 percent each.
Berk speculated that the body may be preparing for the act of laughter or remembering previous episodes of laughter. Anticipation may actually be "more significant than the event itself," he says.
The findings are useful because they could lead to more knowledge about the health effects of laughter and possibly even prescriptions for patients to "watch two Laurel & Hardy [movies] and call me in the morning," Berk says.
But experts say Berk's research doesn't break major new ground. Scientists already know that anticipation of a positive experience makes people feel better, says Sultanoff, the Pepperdine professor.
In addition, the findings don't prove that anticipation of laughter has special health-boosting properties, says Diane Mahony, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
"Humor and laughter are good, but they aren't better than anything else that improves your mood, distracts you and causes you to relax," she says.
What To Do
The University of Washington offers this fact sheet on laughter. It's designed for kids, but adults will find it interesting, too.
The next time you laugh, you'll know what's going on if you read this primer from HowStuffWorks.com.
If you're wondering if there are people out there who feel laughter is the best medicine, check the Power of Laughter and Play conference in San Francisco.