Laughter is the Best – and Possibly Oldest – Medicine

We have all heard the old adage before: laughter is the best medicine. But, it might just be among the oldest medicine. In a report published by the University of Wolverhampton, and commissioned by the British television channel Dave, the world’s oldest joke can be traced back to 1900 BC. Not surprisingly, the list of the world’s top 10 oldest jokes includes the ever-popular bathroom humor and much sexual innuendo.

Empirical medical research confirms that people who smile and laugh are generally happy, and people who do not, are not. The benefits of humor and laughter as complementary medicine, as well as just a healthy life practice, are unequivocal. As far back as the second century AD, Greek physicians documented that people who developed certain diseases had “melancholic” personalities. More recent clinicians have produced anecdotal reports of people developing cancer during stressful life events. Humor can be used to decrease stress, reduce pain, and increase immune function, but just how laughter elicits a physiologic response is still under investigation.

LaughterLaughter is a naturally occurring response to humorous stimuli and is a rather easily implemented and cost-effective clinical tool. Some lay publications even report that laughter is equivalent to aerobic exercise. It is true that laughter can increase blood flow, stimulate circulation, contract muscle groups, and improve respiratory function. But, these effects are short-lived and laughter is followed by a period of muscle relaxation, decreased heart rate, slowed respiration, and decreased blood pressure. This period may last as long as 45 minutes. Some research has shown laughter causes a decrease in the levels of the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This may explain the relationship between laughter and increased immune function, which leads to overall health benefits. Scientific data supporting the extent and actual benefit of laughter is lacking, however, and some studies have yielded conflicting results.

So what is the oldest recorded joke? It is a saying of ancient Sumerians, who lived in what is now part of Iraq: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Something may have been lost in translation, but we can all have a little chuckle at that one.

The randy Anglo-Saxons come in at number 3 on the oldest joke countdown: “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before? A key!” That may not really qualify as medicine, but it sure is funny.


M. P. Bennett (2006). Humor and Laughter may Influence Health. I. History and Background Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 3 (1), 61-63 DOI: 10.1093/ecam/nek015

M. P. Bennett, C. Lengacher (2007). Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III. Laughter and Health Outcomes Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 5 (1), 37-40 DOI: 10.1093/ecam/nem041

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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