HEALTH & PE
Volume 6, Issue 2 2022
HEALTH & PE
Volume 6, Issue 2, 2022
Why You Should Laugh Out Loud
Stephanie Osfield: Counsellor, Teacher and Health and Medical Journalist
Laughter carries many different health impacts that can benefit our mind and body while also helping us to feel safe and a sense of belonging.
When was the last time you told a joke? Or had a good laugh? Not a chuckle, but a complete and genuine belly laugh that lasted more than a few seconds? Can’t remember? Then you could be short-changing your health. Just as we smile when we have a positive experience, laughter is a physical and visual neon sign of an enjoyable response to a specific stimulus. The catalysts for laughter are wide, varied and very individual. They may include a humorous routine by a stand-up comedian, a funny film, a hilarious pet moment or a text with funny typos.
When we laugh, we engage in repetitive vocalisations. We contract and release specific muscles involved in facial expressions (like the mouth and eyes) and breathing (like the diaphragm and lungs). We may throw our heads back during laughter, flare our nostrils, breathe faster, and sometimes laugh so hard that our eyes produce tears in response to the enormous emotional release. Laughter may also cause our pupils to dilate and the skin on our cheeks to flush as the blood circulation increases. Yet though we tend to think of laughter as a fleeting, fun pastime that adds lightness to the day, it has a far more comprehensive range of impressive health and social benefits than simply helping us let our hair down and let off some steam.
Laughter and Social Bonds
Laughter is the ultimate ice-breaker. It is also ‘behaviourally contagious’, which means other people are more likely to laugh if one person laughs. This is why television comedies add laugh tracks to sitcoms – this helps make the show seem funnier because each audience member feels they are laughing along with a large group of other viewers. Experts such as neurobiologist Robert Provine have observed that humans are 30 per cent more likely to laugh when in the company of others. When he conducted research in a shopping mall involving eavesdropping on more than 1,200 conversations, the study found that the speaking person laughed 46% more than the listener. Provine and his co-researchers also noted that laughter rarely interrupted a person’s sentence. The chuckles, laughs and giggles often occurred at the end of the speaker’s comment or phrase, working almost like punctuation in the form of a verbal exclamation mark.
When we laugh at a joke or a meme shared by someone, the feeling of mutual agreement creates a connection and a sense that we are on the same page. In this way, laughter reinforces existing ties with family, friends, classmates and work colleagues, making us feel safe and reassured within those relationships. Laughter can also help build new relationships with friends of friends or strangers. It provides a cue that we are well disposed towards the other person, and if they laugh in return, it can reassure us that we are safe in their company.
Of course, for these safety cues to occur, the laughter must seem authentic. If a person who has bullied you in the past laughs at something you say, but their laugh sounds sarcastic, your brain may send you a message that this person still cannot be trusted. Some people also laugh inappropriately during stressful situations as a form of stress release. For example, someone laughs when they wait for an injection. This is called ‘nervous’ or ‘incongruous’ laughter and some experts believe that it may occur as a defence mechanism or a way to reduce the intensity of emotion experienced during enormous or uncomfortable pressure or distress.
By comparison, happy social laughter, which people enjoy in all kinds of settings, including parties, family dinners, school classrooms, sports training sessions and sleep-overs with friends, may have the important function of reinforcing, maintaining and strengthening social bonds between people. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We evolved to live in tribes because living and travelling in groups keep us safe from predators, and it ensures that we find people to partner with so that children are born to continue the species. Living in tribes also provides an insurance policy when we’re sick or incapacitated, as there will be someone who can help care for us and ensure that we have access to food to survive.
When considered in this context, laughter operates a little like a language of belonging, even though it involves sounds rather than words. It fosters strong feelings of togetherness and accord so that we feel a greater sense of closeness and solidarity with people in our tribe. This increases the chances of survival day to day and when faced with disasters like floods. Research from the University of Oxford and University College London also shows that when we meet strangers, we are more likely to disclose more personal and intimate information if we can find a way to share laughter. Again, this may stem from our desire to survive and ensure that a stranger becomes our friend and not our enemy.
Is Laughter The Best Medicine?
In 1964, a Stanford University Psychology Professor called William Fry made the first application to study the health impacts of laughter. Though he did not receive any funding, he still published several papers on the subject that suggested laughter had numerous health benefits. Later, in the 1970s, another American health professional, Dr Hunter (Patch) Adams, began his famous work of trying to introduce more humour into hospital wards, which greatly benefited the physical and mental health of patients.
In the 1970s, a man in the US called Norman Cousins drew attention to the therapeutic benefits of laughter when he used his self-devised laughter therapy regime to help treat his debilitating auto-immune disease, called ankylosing spondylitis. While lying on his back in a hospital bed, he asked nurses to read to him from funny texts, and he arranged to watch comic films and comedy skits. Not only was his laughter therapy beneficial; he believed it helped him go into remission, and the results of his self-devised laughter therapy were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Though some of his health improvement may have been due to the placebo effect (where thinking something is therapeutic can help it act like medicine in your body), Cousin’s improvement spotlight the benefits of laughter.
This helped create greater interest in the ground-breaking research that followed – especially the studies conducted at Loma Linda University in California by Dr Lee Berk and Dr Stanley Tan. Since the 1980s, they have been scientifically documenting the body’s response to what they call ‘mirthful laughter’ when you really enjoy a good giggle burst and laugh aloud. Their research and other studies in this area – which is called the field of ‘gelotology’, have shown that laughter:
– Improves Immunity: Laughter improves our immune system response, and it can increase the production of antibodies, which help the body respond to viruses such as a cold or flu. Laughter also activates protective cells, including T-cells and Natural Killer cells, which are very powerful and important for the body’s immune defence and to help fight viruses and bacteria. In addition, it encourages the body to release more Human Growth Hormone, which then helps repair cells and supports the growth and health of bone and tissues, such as muscle.
– Reduces blood pressure: Laughter can trigger the release of a chemical called nitric oxide. This causes vasodilation in blood vessels, which relax and open a little wider, allowing blood to flow more easily. This reduces blood pressure, which can be good for your heart.
– Elevates mood: Laughter is an entertaining distraction that can help you feel more cheerful, uplifted, happy, hopeful and light-hearted, even when only moments before you might have been experiencing a low mood. Studies show that laughter increases levels of serotonin (known as the happiness hormone) and triggers the release of dopamine, a neurochemical that lights up the pleasure centres of the brain and create a strong sense of enjoyment and reward, making us feel more energised and happy.
Improves concentration and short-term memory: Many of us are rushing and stressing every day, which causes our bodies to release stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. These impede our memory, but they can also cloud our thinking. Laughter helps by reducing the levels of these chemicals in the body, which helps to create more clear cognition (review).
– Stimulates ‘feel-good’ chemicals: Just as marathon runners report a phenomenon called a ‘runner’s high’, caused by the release of mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, laughter too can trigger the release of endorphins from the brain’s opioid receptors. Endorphins are produced when we laugh, and they help elevate mood. Research at Loma Linda University also found that when volunteers in a study were told they would watch a funny film, their brains released endorphins in anticipation.
Figure 5: Laughter releases the endorphins – feel good hormones – that are also released by running.
– Relieves pain: Endorphins do more than simply make us feel good – they can also help alleviate pain. So, if you have a bad headache or a sprained ankle, watching a comedy may prove an effective adjunct (additional) pain reliever to use instead of pain relief medication.
– Lowers stress and stress hormones: Laughter can work as a natural antidote to stress. Numerous studies show that laughter decreases the body’s levels of stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol. People who laugh more frequently also appear to be better able to deal with stressful days and stressful events, show research from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
– Exercises some of your muscles: Have you ever laughed so much that your throat and top of your abdomen felt sore? Laughter is not just an emotional experience; it is a physical experience too. There’s a good reason we often talk about having ‘a good belly laugh’. When you laugh, your breathing rate rapidly increases and the muscles in your diaphragm, just under your ribs, contract and release, giving them quite a workout. You also use muscles in your back, shoulders, and face to get a little exercise, helping to keep them more toned.
– Increases oxygen levels: The muscular activity generated by laughter causes the circulation to increase, which assists the red oxygen-rich blood that travels through the left side of the heart to circulate more oxygen to the body’s tissues and brain. This can help provide more energy and may benefit concentration.
– Can help burn a few calories: Though it’s no replacement for an exercise workout, research suggests that when we laugh heartily, we may burn as many calories as walking.
These are several good reasons to swap out some murder mystery or action films for a few more comedies.
Laughter Groups and Laughter Prescriptions
In the last few decades, laughter groups have become an emerging trend. The first group originated in Mumbai in India, formed by a physician called Dr Madan Kataria in 1995; he called his approach ‘laughter yoga’. Cut to the present and there are many different varieties of laughter-seeking groups operating all over the world with other names such as ‘laugh aerobics’, ‘laughter therapy’ and ‘laughter clubs’. Participants meet up in places like community halls or people’s houses, where they engage in a range of activities to promote more laughter – from sharing jokes and watching comedies, to faking laughter until they genuinely laugh.
Though laughter may not be able to cure their every ailment, people who attend these clubs anecdotally report feeling happier and healthier at the end of their laughter sessions. Though we may not all have access to similar groups, we can form our own or follow their lead and seek more laughter every day. Some experts suggest that we should even make laughter prescriptions to help us when we are unwell or boost our wellbeing. In the long-term, a chuckle here and chortle there may help improve everything from sleep and state of mind to an ability to get through winter with fewer colds. So laugh it up, laugh your head off, laugh out loud and laugh away whenever you get the chance.
1. Why is social laughter important?
2. Make a five-slide presentation showing how laughter can boost immunity.
3. List three health benefits of laughter and write a sentence or two about each one.
4. Research the history of memes and write a paragraph about them, naming two memes you like that have gone viral and why you think they made people laugh.
5. What impact do the endorphins triggered by laughter have on the body?
6. Draw a diagram of a person and shade in the areas of the body where the muscles are most active during laughter.
7. Keep a laugh diary over a day and note each time you laugh and the time and stimulus. Count up how many times you laughed and what tickled your funny bone.
8. Write a list of all phrases related to laughing. Choose two that are different and describe their meaning, e.g. “He was a laughing stock” versus “He had the last laugh”.
9. Imagine you are a doctor and write a laughter prescription for a patient, listing suggested activities to increase their daily laughter.
10. Divide into groups and write a list of films and TV series that people found funny. Compare the lists during a class discussion and see which examples came up the most often. Discuss why you think they were more popular.
References and Resources
American Lung Association. Is Laughter Good For Lung Health?
CNN. Can Laughing Give You A Workout?
Healthline: What Causes Nervous Laughter?
Laughter Online University: Who, What, When:
Loma Linda University Health. Laughter a Foolproof Prescription. 2019: https://news.llu.edu/research/laughter-fool-proof-prescription
Loma Linda University Health: Episode 5 Laughter and Memory: https://lluh.org/patients-visitors/health-wellness/live-it/online-health-show/episode-5-laughter-and-memory
Mayo Clinic. Stress Relief From Laughter? It’s No Joke:
Michigan State University. Laughter Has Serious Benefits: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/laughter_has_serious_benefits
Science Daily. Laughter Has A Positive Impact on Vascular Function: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110828101806.htm
The Heart Foundation. 5 Reasons You Should Laugh Every Day:
The Washington Post. Norman Cousins Still Laughing https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/wellness/1986/10/21/norman-cousins-still-laughing/e17f23cb-3e8c-4f58-b907-2dcd00326e22/
Akimbekov, N, S., Razzaque, M. S. 2021 Laughter Therapy: A Humour-Induced Hormonal Intervention To Reduce Stress and Anxiety. Current Research in Physiology, 2021;4:135-138. doi: 10.1016/j.crphys.2021.04.002.
Berk, L. S., Tan, S. A. 2008. Cortisol and Catecholamine Stress Hormone Decrease Is Associated with the Behaviour of Perceptual Anticipation of Mirthful Laughter. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Buchowski, M. S., Majchrzak, K. M., Blomquist, K., Chen, K. Y., Byrne, D. W., Bacharowski, J-A. 2006. Energy Expenditure of Genuine Laughter. International Journal of Obesity. 2007 Jan;31(1):131-7. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803353. Epub 2006 May 2.
Gray, A. W., Parkinson, B., Dunbar, R. I. Laughter’s Influence on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure. Human Nature, 2015; DOI: 10.1007/s12110-015-9225-8
Ikeda, S., Ikeda, A., Yamagishi, K., Hori, M., Kubo, S., Sata, M., Okada, C., Umesawa, M., Sankai, T., Kitamura, A., Kiyama, M., Ohira, T., Tanigawa, T., Iso, H. 2020. Longitudinal Trends in Blood Pressure Associated With the Frequency of Laughter: The Circulatory Risk in Communities Study (CIRCS), a Longitudinal Study. Journal of Epidemiology, 2020 Feb 22. doi: 10.2188/jea.JE20190140