Social media has got us lol-ing and ‘rofl’ (rolling around floor laughing, for those not in the know), but when was the last time you had a good old fit of really laughing out loud?
You know what we’re talking about; over coffee with a friend, an in-joke or silly remark leads to a giggle which becomes more and more infectious, and before you know it, you’re both holding your sides and have aching cheeks!
Having a really good laugh can feel amazing, and there’s lots of scientific evidence to indicate that laughter really can be the best medicine.
Let’s explore why we laugh, what happens when we laugh and the positive effects laughter can have on our bodies.
Health Benefits of Laughter
There are many different studies and clinical trials about the effects of laughter on the body, and many of them indicate it has numerous health benefits.
Here are the highlights:
- Laughter Lowers Stress Levels
Although we’ve evolved considerably in many ways since the first human species, some of our instincts, such as that of survival don’t differ significantly to those of our cave-dwelling ancestors.
When faced with any kind of threat—either physical or psychological, the brain triggers the release of adrenaline delivered by the bloodstream to various systems, increasing heart rate, muscle strength and energy supply.
Epinephrine, which is also known as adrenaline, is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in response to strong emotions, such as fear or anger. Adrenaline basically puts all our systems on red alert, ready to either face or escape danger.
Research indicates that laughter has the effect of reducing the level of epinephrine in the bloodstream, helping to keep the body calm and relaxed and stress levels low.
- Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Cortisol is another type of hormone made in the adrenal glands. It’s involved in various different metabolic and immune system functions, including reducing inflammation and helping to control blood sugar levels. Cortisol also helps the brain in forming memory pathways, and aids in the control of blood pressure.
Everything needs to balanced, however. High cortisol levels have been associated with anxiety and depression. In scientific studies, laughter has been shown to reduce excessive levels of cortisol and significantly reduce the symptoms of low mood, anxiety and depression.
- Boosts the Immune System
We rely on our immune system on a daily basis to provide protection from bacteria, viral and fungal infections, among various other nasties, to keep us healthy.
The immune system largely consists of specialized cells which deal with foreign invaders. We can tell how active the immune system is by monitoring the amount of these specialized cells in the blood.
In one research trial, scientists observed significantly higher levels of many types of these specialized cells in the blood after inducing laughter in subjects. Interestingly, scientists have also found that the levels of active immune system cells can remain elevated long after the laughter intervention.
So laughter can give our immune system a real boost that continues to be effective long after we physically stop laughing. One research trial observed that the immunological benefits of laughter lasted up to 12 hours after the laughter stimulus had been removed.
- Laughter Can Help Control Diabetes
We’ve already seen how laughter has been shown to affect the levels of different hormones in the body. Hormones and chemicals also play a role in the management of diabetes, and laughter has also proven in research to delay the onset of diabetic symptoms and complications.
- Laugh Away the Pain
Laughter is often associated with quotes about it being the best medicine, and it appears that’s true when it comes to pain levels. One clinical trial studied the effects of using a clown on pain levels and anxiety in children undergoing venous blood withdrawal.
The study found that the pain levels of the children in the clown intervention group were as low as the group who had a local anesthetic applied, and the duration of crying, anxiety and the amount of benefit perceived by parents were all significantly better in the clown group.
- The Feel-Good Factor
Going to see a comedian, watching a funny show, sharing anecdotes and jokes with friends are all activities that can make us have a really good laugh, and most of us know how that feels.
That warm glow and feeling of lightness and fun and happiness. There are scientific reasons for these feelings, too. Scientists have discovered that a good dose of laughter stimulates the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the body.
Endorphins are a group of hormones which generate feelings of pleasure, well-being and euphoria. They are, in fact, opioids, and often act as our natural pain relief.
- Laughter and Anger
Most of us will have experienced some kind of situation in the past where we feel really angry with someone.
Whether it’s your partner who’s just done something which makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever, one of the children driving you up the wall or a friend who has let you down, most of us are familiar with those feelings of rage, frustration and disappointment.
Suddenly, in the middle of you telling them exactly what you think and how you feel, something happens. Someone says or does something funny. Something unexpected makes you both jump, and you both start laughing out of surprise.
It doesn’t matter what it is—laughter can help to diffuse anger in a whole variety of situations, and can lead to some great making up sessions if the problem was with your partner!
- A Social Purpose?
Some research suggests laughter may have historically served a social purpose. We tend to laugh most freely when we’re in a situation where we feel relaxed.
Laughter makes us seem more open and appealing to other people in your company, and can help to bond people within a group. We tell tales of our life experiences, the way we grew up and the way we live, and find humor in situations that are both similar to our own, and wildly different.
While it may not seem like a vital function in terms of health benefits, studies in psychology and sociology inform us that human societies run on social order and the formation of groups. In days gone by right up to current day in some cultures, the basis of entire communities is formed on the theme of common group identities.
Being accepted as part of a family, group or community is actually incredibly important in terms of our own self-worth and psychosocial health.
We only need to look at people who’ve been ostracized by their family or community, and consider the negative effects this can have on people’s physical, psychological and emotional well-being. It can be devastating for some people to not be included as part of a group.
Having in-jokes and being included in shared laughter as part of a social group activity is socially, physically and psychologically rewarding. This leads us to seek out and repeat the behavior, which can help to reinforce intergroup friendships.
- Laughter and Sexual Attraction
We’ve all seen the movies where the nice, funny guy gets passed over for the beefcake jock by the prettiest girl in school. By the end of the movie, she realizes her mistake, and they disappear off into the sunset…you know the ones!
One of the important social functions of laughter is to loosen up members of the opposite sex and makes ourselves more attractive to them by making them laugh, stimulating their pleasure centers and causing them to associate us with enjoyable thoughts and feelings.
This in turn makes the other person want to seek out our company more often and makes them feel closer to us. This may result in a close friendship, but can also be important in attracting a date.
Jeffrey Hall, Kansas University’s Associate Professor of Communications told Science Daily that the more a man makes a woman laugh when they first meet, the more interested she is in dating him. Additionally, Hall’s research has led him to the conclusion that a romantic relationship is even more likely if the man and the woman both laugh together.
- Eases Nerves and Embarrassment
Laughter can also occur as a response to a situation where we feel nervous or embarrassed. When something happens to make us feel embarrassed, it produces a specific chemical reaction that can make us feel tense. It can also stop us from functioning properly for a few seconds—we don’t know what to do or say.
Often, someone will make a joke, and it can have the effect of lightening the atmosphere. Sometimes it’s possible to feel the tension ebbing away as we smile or laugh at the joke.
Laughter can also have a positive effect when we feel nervous. My dentist has a fantastic receptionist. He doesn’t just sit behind the reception desk doing paperwork—he comes and sits with the patients in the waiting room, engaging them in stimulating conversation to keep their minds from focusing on their anxieties.
The jokes he tells can be terrible, but his style of delivery and general personality always seem to get me laughing and feeling much less tense in a situation where I would normally be terrified.
I’m not alone on finding that laughter helps to relieve pressure when dealing with an intense situation. Many research studies have observed a positive effect of laughter during many different kinds of medical procedures, such as in geriatric care, oncology, psychiatry, terminal and home care settings, to name just a few.
Laugh Louder for Long Life!
It’s official: he who laughs most lives longest! We’ve already discussed the many health benefits of laughter. It seems that the culmination of all these health benefits helps us to not only reduce the risk of ill-health and disease, but also to put more years on the clock.
In a study of more than 50,000 participants in a follow-up study of Norwegian participants, scientists found that a good sense of humor is associated with a significant decreased in the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and infections in women, and a reduced rate of deaths from infection in men.
Interestingly, the positive effects of laughter in protecting health were found to last until the age of 85 years, which supports the findings of the long-lasting health benefits of laughter.
Lessons In Laughter
We all have times in our lives when things aren’t going our way, and the last thing we feel like doing is laughing. This is one of the times, however, when laughter is most beneficial, so let’s take a look at some techniques for learning to laugh!
Take Care with Your Company
Take a look at the people in your life. Who are the people you can most easily share a good laugh with? Make a point of seeking out time with these people and sharing some fun and laughter with them.
If you have a friend or colleague who’s usually full of gloom and doom, find ways of managing them. Find out what they enjoy, and learn strategies of turning the conversation towards things they find pleasing to try and get them talking in a more lighthearted way.
If your strategies don’t help very much, limit the amount of time you have to spend with that person, put your professional head on, be objective about it and keep things to the point.
As a last resort, you may decide you need to avoid spending time with that person completely, or only associate with them in a mixed social group.
Share Laughter with Loved Ones
Consider the type of relationships you have with those closest to you. Just how much fun and laughter is there in the mix? Think about things you might want to change to give more opportunities for laughter.
Small changes to everyday activities can bring about lots of opportunity for laughter. Sitting down to meals together provides the opportunity for family conversation, joking and laughter. Arranging a regular family outing can be as simple and low-cost as a walk or as expensive as a family theme park outing.
Arranging a get-together with cousins and old friends often leads to talking about old times and can spark hilarious old stories and anecdotes. Any scenario that brings people together in a good way can provide the opportunity for a good chuckle.
Get Your Daily Dose
In general laughter is good for everybody. No matter what the stimulus might be, laughter is usually a welcome addition to everyone’s life, and people can sometimes find themselves laughing at the most bizarre things.
Creating a feel-good factor and elevated mood are two outward signs of the positive effects of laughter. Other health benefits of laughter include lower levels of stress, reduced blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, decreases anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Laughter also has a significantly long-lasting effect of boosting the immune system, and can help to control the symptoms of diabetes. It can also lead to reduced perception of pain and has an amazing way of generally making us feel great inside.
Aside from the physical and psychological health benefits of laughter, some experts also think that from far back in our ancestral history, laughter has assisted us in bonding with other people, helping us to form lasting friendships, and eases the tension in an embarrassing situation.
While we can pay to watch a funny movie, or a stand-up comedian, laughter doesn’t have to cost anything, and some of the most hearty laughter happens when we’re amongst friends or family, sharing memories and trading stories.
Laughter causes many positive changes in the body, and now there are scientific studies that prove the health benefits of laughter. There really aren’t any reasons not to get a bit more fun in your life and get your daily dose of sunshine for the soul!