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Lots of people are talking about happiness, and not just because 20 March is International Day of Happiness. Links between health and happiness have been around for a long time, as this 18th century cartoon shows.

. Coloured engraving by Richard Newton, 1797. Wellcome Images reference: V0010955.

A new way of curing quinsey. Coloured engraving by Richard Newton, 1797. Wellcome Images reference: V0010955.

In the drawing, a patient suffering from quinsey (a complication of tonsillitis) objects to the recommended treatment of throat gargling. His physician hits upon the novel idea of staging a food fight with the man’s footman. This  curious scene “put the old gentleman in so happy a fit of laughter, it entirely cured his quinsey”.

Laughter, happiness and well-being are firmly on the research agenda today. Recent research by Professor Sophie Scott and her team found that laughter was a universal  expression of happiness across different cultures, suggesting that it has deep evolutionary roots. The positive emotions associated with laughter may foster social cohesion, a sense of acceptance and group bonding.

The British Government now provides an annual Statistical Bulletin on Personal Well-being. Lord Richard Layard, London School of Economics economist and former ‘Happiness Tsar’, attributes the new found State interest in happiness to the fact that  a science of happiness has emerged since the 1990s, which suggests that happiness can be measured and perhaps increased, just like wealth.

Research into the health benefits of happiness are still in the early stages; they may be the result of a general sense of well-being, or a more complex cause. Whether placebo, correlation or cure, there are no negative side effects to a dose of laughter – so what have we got to lose?

Maybe that 18th century physician was on to something. What if, the next time you visited the doctor instead of that 20-30 minutes spent waiting in a drab waiting room you were treated to a comedy sketch, or a session of laughing yoga? Wouldn’t that make you more disposed towards the doctor and more inclined to take her advice? It may even do you some good.

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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