The Health Benefits of Laughter

The Health Benefits of Laughter

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” And it’s true! Laughter is an integral part of the human experience, whether you’re sharing a laugh in person, over a Zoom happy hour, or giggling over funny gifs on WhatsApp. Even in text messages, the frequent use of “LOL” and “haha” is a daily part of how we communicate with one another. That’s because we laugh more with others than we do alone, making laughter a key part of our relationships with one another.

Laughter serves other purposes, too: it’s how we experience joy, release tension, express satisfaction—it’s even a way for us to navigate those moments when we’re feeling a little awkward. It’s no wonder that it’s also known for reducing stress and improving mood.

But what exactly is laughter—and why is it good for us?

What is laughter?

Woman in orange-brown sweater smiling and laughing

As far back as any of us can remember, laughter has been a part of our lives. You learn to laugh by about 17 days old and by four months old, infants laugh as a physical response to social cues. According to psychologists, having a sense of humor and laughing easily is one of the main 24 signature strengths a person can possess. But is it an emotion or a feeling? What causes laughter? And why is laughter important?

Merriam-Webster defines laughing as “To show emotion (such as mirth, joy, scorn) with a chuckle or explosive vocal sound.” And while that may technically be true, laughter is both more simple and more complicated than a dictionary definition can suggest. Laughter makes up a huge part of how we respond to stimuli. Sometimes it’s nuanced, sometimes it’s silly, but there’s no doubt that it serves a purpose in how we perceive the world around us. Ultimately, it’s important for how we process emotions as well as maintain a positive outlook and manage stress.

What are positive effects of laughter on emotional and physical health?

Couple on beach laughing away stress

We often hear about how laughter reduces stress, but you might be wondering how it does that. Besides the obvious benefit of just making you feel good, the short and long term health benefits of laughter are plentiful. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

  • Activates and alleviates your stress response— Much like a great cardio session, laughter helps rev up and then cool down the body’s stress response. Getting in those yuks can help favorably maintain heart rate and blood pressure, leaving you feeling blissed out and relaxed.
  • Relieves muscle tension— When people say to let tension roll off your shoulders, a good bout of laughter should do the trick. It helps with blood circulation and easing muscle tension, a physical manifestation of stress.
  • Boosts immune health— It’s true that stress can manifest itself physically and take a toll on our health. When negative thoughts permeate your day, it can increase overall stress levels and lower your immune defenses, making it easier to get sick. By contrast, laughter and positive thoughts release neuropeptides that not only can help fight stress, but also help fight off illnesses. Laughing can also increase the amount of T cells and natural killer (NK) cells in the body, two integral parts of the immune system that work hard to fight challenges and keep you healthy. Mind over matter!
  • Pain relief— Laughter triggers the release of chemicals that help ease pain and also promote a positive state of mind and sense of well-being.
  • Improves mental health— Laughter helps lower levels of cortisol, more commonly known as the stress hormone, along with epinephrine and growth hormone. Lower levels of these hormones are associated with lower levels of stress. Laughter also alters dopamine and serotonin activity, two neurotransmitters well known for their feel-good properties that help keep you happy and fight depression.

So, next time you’re feeling under the weather and ready to binge some Netflix, you might want to pick a comedy or the stand-up show, because there’s science behind a pick-me-up!

Is nervous laughter healthy?

Woman nervously laughing to dissipate unwanted feelings

Yes, even nervous laughter serves a purpose! When we’re confronted with less-than-humorous stimuli – such as pain, anxiety, or stress – nervous laughter is a natural response that helps dissipate these unwanted feelings.

While an awkward chortle isn’t exactly the same as the feel-good laughter we experience when we hear a funny joke or experience something comical with friends and family, it still does your mind and your body good by taking the edge off the stressful situation.

Does laughter release endorphins?

Couple laughing at each other while doing yoga

Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods was right when she said that exercise gives you endorphins, and endorphins make you happy. But what she didn’t mention is that while exercise is a great way to boost your endorphins, laughter is also another (arguably quicker) method of producing endorphins in the body.

And while there are many types of laughter, research suggests that social laughter is a safe and effective way to trigger endorphin release in the brain. The endorphin response in the brain helps support formation, reinforcement and maintenance of social bonds between humans. It’s no wonder why we feel so good when laughing with friends: laughing truly is contagious!

If you are looking to combine laughter and exercise for a synergistic endorphin release, try laughter yoga! Laughter yoga is a combination of movement and breathing exercises that are used to trigger laughter intentionally. This laughter is intended to help promote optimism and positivity by learning to laugh on cue, which is said to provide similar benefits to spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga also touts the benefits of stress management via controlled breathing and oxygen uptake that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (better known as the part of the body that affects relaxation).  The benefits of this kind of yoga will have you leaving class saying, “Namaste laughing!”

Does laughing make you live longer?

Senior couple laughing at table

Turns out, it’s not just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away. A study found that a sense of humor is directly related to lower mortality rates, especially in women. Women with a sense of humor were found to be more likely to live longer despite illness, and had better outcomes against cardiovascular disease and infection, while men with a sense of humor were found to have lower risk of death from infection.

No matter what your age, laughter should be a part of everyone’s healthy lifestyle. Grab a friend and take the opportunity to listen to or tell a joke today—and reap the whole-body benefits of a good belly laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine!

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