Would you rather spend 15 minutes pedaling on an exercise bike, or laugh 100 times? Research tells us some of the health benefits are the same. Gelotology is the study of laughter and its effect on the body. (Yes, there are people whose job it is to study laughter. That must mean that laughter is pretty significant!) Indeed, research has shown numerous health benefits of laughter, even as scientists struggle to understand such a complex phenomenon.
How Does Laughter Work?
Laughter can be summed up as a physiological response to humor. But exactly what is this physiological response (that impacts our entire body)? How exactly does laughter work?
When a person laughs, there are multiple happenings in their body. This article gives a good overview of the mechanics of laughter. To summarize:
- The Brain: Through interactions between multiple regions of our brain, we understand something to be humorous, which triggers a signal to our brain stem.
- The Face: Facial muscles around our eyes and cheek contract.
- The Lungs: Prompted by the brain stem, chest muscles force air out of the lungs, which vibrates the vocal cords. The glottis opens and closes rapidly during laughter, causing short repetitive uncontrollable vocalizations (the classic “ha-ha” sound).
- The Eyes: Your eyes may start to water.
- The Heart: Heart rate and blood pressure increase to account for the sudden loss of oxygen that resulted from the rush of air that just exited your lungs.
- The Muscles: Facial, chest, abdominal, and skeletal muscles contract and relax. The body’s core muscles tense, but the rest of your body’s muscles become weaker (hence the common experience of becoming “weak with laughter”).
- The Hormones: Endorphins, serotonin, and growth hormones are released throughout the body, while levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline are reduced.
So now that we know what happens in our bodies when we laugh, how does that actually translate to health effects?
Health Benefits of Laughter
Humor and laughter are difficult to study, and scientists still don’t truly understand how and why we laugh. However, they are able to study the effects of laughter on our bodies, and the overall conclusion is that laughter has positive, quantifiable effects on health, with adverse effects being strikingly rare. Laughter may truly be the best medicine!
Laughter has shown physiological, psychological, social, spiritual, and quality-of-life benefits. And these benefits of laughter are both immediate and longer-lasting:
- Laughter boosts the immune system. When we’re laughing, immune cells that destroy viruses and tumors increase. T-cells and B-cells are strengthened. Additionally, laughter decreases stress hormones. Since stress is known to hinder the immune system, relieving stress boosts the body’s ability to fight off infection.
- Laughter increases oxygen levels. Laughter forces stale air out and allows more oxygen to penetrate deeper into the lungs. This has health benefits for the entire body. More oxygenated blood circulating through the body improves vascular function. It means less strain on the heart, and a stronger lymphatic (immune) system. At least one study shows that low oxygen levels in cells may be a primary cause of uncontrollable tumor growth in some cancers, and some scientists even believe increasing oxygen to the cells may prevent disease from occuring in them at all.
- Laughter improves our mental health. A good laugh will release pent-up tension, lower anxiety, and improve your mood. The sense of psychological relaxation and calmness that occurs afterward can last up to 45 minutes. Laughter can increase pain tolerance, making both physical and mental pain easier to bear. Over the longer term, laughter can help foster resilience and make your life experience more manageable and enjoyable.
- Laughter is good for the brain. The entire brain is involved in dissecting humor — processing the language, the context, the incongruities of why exactly something is funny. Processing something humorous is like exercise for the brain. Some research suggests that there is a connection between humor and intelligence. Additionally, humor can sharpen short-term memory.
- Laughter may even extend your life. In one 15-year study, researchers noticed a lower mortality rate among participants who had a strong sense of humor compared to those who didn’t.
Is All Laughter Created Equal?
With all of these health benefits of laughter, you may be surprised to learn that many of them can be realized with or without humor as a stimulus. Both spontaneous laughter (a natural reaction to something funny or enjoyable) and self-induced laughter (forcing oneself to laugh) offer benefits.
So, even if you don’t have anything to laugh about — try doing it! Particularly if you’re around other people, self-induced laughter will often turn into genuine laughter. (Haven’t you heard laughter is contagious?) If you need some inspiration, this article gives six tips for bringing more laughter into your life.
Laughter: Just What the Doctor Ordered
At In and Out Express Care, our doctors would never tell you to binge Comedy Central instead of 15 minutes on an exercise bike. But there’s no reason to downplay the benefits of laughter on your health and well-being.
From what we do know, there is no downside to laughter. So based on the demonstrated health benefits of laughter, we recommend you find time every day for a laugh or two. It won’t replace a good workout, but in some cases, it may come close!
In and Out Express Care is a family doctor and urgent care clinic in Hampton Roads, VA with four convenient locations throughout the Tidewater region. When you need immediate medical attention for a non-life-threatening situation, come see our friendly doctors. No appointment is ever necessary. We’re here for you — and that’s no laughing matter.