Have you ever wondered about the health benefits of laughter? This article explores the old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine” and goes into some of the research into the subject.
“Laughter is the best medicine”, the old saying goes. Here at A Happy Brain, we won’t argue with that kind of conventional wisdom. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh?! What we would like to do, though, is take a look into the truth behind this old adage.
In this article, we’re going to investigate some of the science behind why a good giggle really is beneficial to your health, in particular the health of our most powerful organ—the brain.
Laughter as Social Glue
In another recent article, we discussed how important a good social life is to our overall health, and looked at some fun ways to remain sociable even when we can’t meet people in person.
Part of being social is laughing together. Laughter is a uniquely human phenomenon. It’s also universal across languages, cultures and ethnicities. No matter who we are or where we come from, we can share a good laugh.
Interaction with those around us is undoubtedly beneficial to our wellbeing. In fact, sharing joyous moments with our community has been proven to give us boosts of chemical happy hormones1.
After much investigation, researchers have (almost) agreed that laughter can be defined as a response to social stimulation that serves the function of relieving tension and stress. We all know how a joint exhalation of mirth connects you to those around you in a powerful shared moment. Have you ever witnessed a hilarious incident and shared the amusement with strangers around you?
Perhaps you’ve been in a tense situation with other people and someone makes a joke. The laughing that follows releases the tension like letting air out of a balloon. This shared laugher might have even sparked a greater connection with those around you. Those sensations are powerful bonding emotions, and are a vital part of humanity’s social connection.
Speaking of funny children, babies laugh before they ever speak2. This further proves that laughter is an unconscious, spontaneous and automatic physiological mechanism. And that mechanism is accompanied by the welcome reward of an inward feeling of happiness, due to the release of some nice chemicals. We like to call them the “happy hormones.”
Laughter Sets the Happy Hormones Free
There are four main “happy hormones”—namely oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. They each have their own specific functions and effects, but—you’ll guess where we’re going with this—laughter is linked to all four. Let’s take a look at the science behind what these hormones do for us, and their function in our bodies.
- Oxytocin is the hormone that promotes bonding and trust3, while reducing stress. It’s stimulated by human connection such as touch, romance, friendship and—you guessed it—shared joy. Laughing together is a meaningful way to bond with our social group4, and is one of the many ways that humans have evolved to cooperate so successfully.
- Dopamine is the motivational hormone. It’s what gives you that pleasurable feeling when you achieve something. Dopamine is also released in anticipation of achieving something. Laughter is well known to produce dopamine, in fact even just smiling is enough to give you a little happy boost55!
- Serotonin is the stereotypical “happy hormone”. It regulates your mood, giving feelings of happiness, joy and calmness. It also has an important function in our sleep cycle. Low serotonin levels cause depression, but studies have found6 that laughter, in particular “laughter-therapy” has the power to boost your serotonin levels and thus decrease depression and anxiety.
- Endorphins, you may be shocked to learn, work in a very similar way to opiods! In fact, it was a group of scientists studying opioids like morphine that discovered the existence of endorphins, and their pleasurable effects. The word “endorphin” is a portmanteau of “endogenous” (originating from the body) and “morphine”. “Body morphine”, who knew?! Luckily, this hormone gives us a high that’s non-addictive, healthy and safe. When endorphins are released by the brain, they relieve stress and pain. Laughing triggers the release of endorphins. Researchers have also discovered that the more opioid receptors a person has, the more they laugh7!
The Health Benefits of Laughter–Laughter and the Immune System
So now we know how laughter affects our hormones, let’s take a look at some of the other health benefits of laughter. A good chuckle makes us feel good, helps develop strong relationships and gives us a feeling of reward. However, laughing helps us in other ways as well.
Interestingly, researchers have found a clear link between laughter the immune system8. In the linked study, researchers asked participants to watch an hour of humorous videos. Afterwards, they tested the participant’s blood and found that immune factors (immunoglobulins, natural killer cells) in the blood increased compared to before the hour of watching the humorous videos.
By decreasing stress hormones and increasing immune cells and levels of antibodies, laughing helps our bodies fight off illnesses. If that’s not a reason to laugh, we don’t know what is!
The Health Benefits of Laughter–A Happy Heart
The health benefits of laughter extend to the cardiovascular system as well. Laughter helps your blood vessels to function properly9. By doing so, it improves your cardiovascular health. Laughing causes the exact opposite effect of stress. Stress constricts the correct flow of blood, and laughter increases it.
When laughter causes your blood vessels to expand, it means that your whole body, including your brain, receives a stronger supply of oxygen rich blood. This makes everything run better. Laughter also reduces stress and tension10, which are both bad for your heart.
The Health Benefits of Laughter–A Laugh a Day
Surprisingly, learning researchers have found that humor and laughter have the effect of helping your brain retain more information11. These researchers found that when humor was included in the education of young people, it improved their ability to remember what they have learned. Experienced educators like The Count from Sesame Street have known this for decades. Science has finally caught up!
Children laugh a lot. In fact, they laugh many times more per day than us adults, and that’s a real pity. Now that we’ve learned about the health benefits of laughter, why not do as much of it as possible? Watch a funny flick, go to a comedy club and watch some stand up, or simply spend good times with positive people. It’s a free and fun way to live a happier and longer life!
Dr. Annissa Slusher