By Leslie Gregory Haukoos Illustration by Andrea Rule
In the 1973 comedy “Sleeper,” Woody Allen’s character wakes from a 200-year frozen sleep to find he has emerged in a drastically changed world. Of particular delight to him, science has confirmed that eating fatty red meat is actually good for you.
Though it’s doubtful that beef will be on the list of healthy foods anytime soon, other universal pleasures, like dark chocolate and red wine, have made the cut.
In a world where good news is scarce, science today is providing us with reasons why some of the simplest and most profound pleasures are actually good medicine.
We are learning that it truly is beneficial to your health to laugh, hard and often. Everyone knows music makes you feel good, but now we are hearing that music has healing power. Opening our doors and our hearts to nature has a positive effect on the body. Sex isn’t just fun, it’s therapeutic. And, get this, giving is good for your health.
It’s enough to make you laugh with joy. So go ahead.
Why we love to laugh
Studies show that laughter is healthy. Norman Cousins was in on the early discussion about laughter and healing in the 1970s when he helped treat his own serious illness by watching funny movies, like those of the Marx Brothers. Since that time, numerous studies have concurred that laughter is physically as well as psychically therapeutic.
In fact, gelotology, the study of laughter and its effects on mind and body, is an official discipline. That’s certain to cause a chuckle. Some of the findings so far: Laughter can lower blood pressure and increase blood flow and oxygenation of the blood. Frequent laughter can improve memory, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. It can encourage creativity and alertness and serve as physical exercise for the diaphragm and muscles in the abdomen, face, legs and back.
A study at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were “40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.” That raises the chicken or the egg question: Does laughter help prevent heart disease or does it work to relieve it? That is uncertain at this point. What we do know is that laughter is good medicine.
All that, and it’s fun, too.
Listen to this
How about music? Though one person may be drawn to opera while another listens to rock, it’s doubtful there is a soul on earth who hasn’t felt an emotional reaction to music. But science is now confirming that music can affect the body as well. Among the less surprising conclusions, as measured in a study of cancer patients, music helps reduce anxiety. But researchers at the Mayo Clinic report that music can also ease physical pain as well as improve memory.
Studies at the University of Maryland found that music affects heart health and that “joyful music” is linked to the “dilation of blood vessels’ inner lining,” which translates into greater blood flow—a good thing all around. That study found that stroke patients who listened to their favorite music experienced improved memory and less depression and confusion than stroke victims who did not listen to music regularly. One theory is that listening to music involves several parts of the brain simultaneously.
Patients with Parkinson’s disease were found to have improved speech and movement with the help of music therapy. And other studies, such as one at the University of Utah Pain Research Center, report that music used as a distraction helped reduce pain.
Research aside, a Puccini aria can cause your soul to ache; a rousing set from the Rolling Stones may set your heart a-thumping; and a Sinatra crooner can send your emotions soaring. That’s reason enough to charge the old iPod.
What Mother never told you
She might have vaguely implied that sex is a good thing, but chances are good old Mom didn’t know to tell you that an active sex life encourages physical health in many different ways. She probably neglected to say that intercourse can reduce the risk of heart attack, lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.
There is evidence to suggest that sex has a positive impact on the immune system and that sexually active people have higher levels of immunoglobulin A, which helps to fight germs and viruses. Researchers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania found that college students who had sex once or twice a week had “higher levels of a certain antibody compared to students who had sex less often.” (An interesting conclusion but not necessarily one you want to pass on to your college-age kids.)
Other research suggests a link between sexual activity and lower blood pressure. And researchers at Rutgers University found that orgasms release a hormone that raises a person’s pain threshold. Many women have reported a decrease in menstrual cramps, arthritic pain and even headaches following orgasm. Pop culture’s Dr. Oz describes sex as a “decent cardio workout,” and we already know the importance of exercise.
Of course, sex is fundamental to intimacy, and a healthy sex life encourages psychological comfort and security, which have been shown to help lengthen life span.
That, and sex releases a hormone that encourages restful sleep.
Go outside and play
But before you snooze, try taking a walk in the wild. Or lug your laptop into the backyard.
According to studies like one out of Columbia University, negative ions, such as those found near waterfalls, breaking ocean waves and rapidly moving rivers, can act as natural antidepressants. A study at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School found that women who spent two to four hours in the woods two days in a row had a significant increase in those scrappy white blood cells known to fight disease.
The Harvard Health Publication, out of Harvard Medical School, cited several physical benefits of being outdoors. Sunlight increases levels of vitamin D, which in turn helps the body fight various ailments, including osteoporosis, cancer, depression and heart attacks. Harvard Health also reported improved concentration, particularly in children who have ADHD. Another Harvard study found that people recovering from spinal surgery took fewer pain pills when they were exposed to natural light. Even just being able to look out a hospital window and see nature, as opposed to a brick wall, helped patients recover.
In fact, simply spending time outdoors tends to go hand- in-hand with more exercise, which in turn helps people relax, according to the folks at Harvard. Plus light tends to elevate people’s moods. So the argument for going al fresco grows even stronger.
It’s something we do without thinking
And it’s a good thing because if we had to consciously think about each breath we take, chances are many of us might not be here. The way our minds race through the tasks on our “To Do” lists, breathing would rarely make the cut. Obviously, breathing keeps us alive. But this simple practice of drawing air into the body and releasing it again has the power to do a whole lot more. According to an online article from Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, breathing deeply is a skill that everyone possesses which often lies dormant. Reawakening the skill allows you “to tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms. . . . This type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.” “Breathing is an unusual bodily function in that it is both involuntary and voluntary,” writes David DiSalvo on Forbes.com. But, unlike many of our body’s other involuntary functions, breathing is something that “at any moment we can grab the controls (of) and consciously change.” “Since we are breathing all the time, the oddness of this dual-control system doesn’t usually dawn on us—but it’s this control flexibility that makes breathing especially worthy of attention. We can change how we breathe and to an extent change how breathing affects our bodies.” DiSalvo lists five science-based reasons why it may be time to start paying more attention to this underutilized tool. He says conscious breathing helps manage stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, sparks brain growth and changes gene expression. It’s safe to say that deep breathing isn’t something that is exclusive to the yoga-minded or monks meditating on mountaintops in Tibet. So stop a moment and take a deep diaphragmatic breath. Exhale, letting all your worries float away. Just breathe.
To give is to receive
Yes, there is wisdom in the old truism after all. Giving—of self, time or resources—has measurable positive health benefits. Harvard’s publication says that volunteering does more than improve our mental state. “A growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might also be rewarded with better physical health—including lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.”
Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that adults who volunteered regularly were less likely to “develop high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease, stroke and premature death.”
Truth is, even without the assurance that these simple pleasures are physically good for us, we enjoy them. And that’s really enough reason to act.
So laugh, love, give and feel.
And if, like in Woody Allen’s world of the future, science changes its tune, deciding that perhaps excessive stress is good for you or smog a salve for the soul—at least we will have enjoyed ourselves, indulging in life’s simple pleasures.