The Unexpected Health Benefits of Laughter

Learn how a laughing sets off a chain reaction that boosts your body, mind and soul.

Medically reviewed in September 2020

Humor has a way of knocking off our rough edges. It playfully jolts us awake and tickles us until we surrender to laughter.

I vividly recall a favorite teacher sharing with our grade school class an Apache myth about the Creator giving human beings the ability to talk, to run and to love. But the Creator was not satisfied until he also gave them the ability to laugh. Only then, did the Creator say, “Now you will truly live.” This same teacher had us start each morning before class by taking turns sharing a joke. This was true wisdom on her part given the beneficial physical, emotional, mental and social effects of laughter.

From the increase in blood flow and immune response to the stimulation of circulation and social connection, science is now citing the myriad health-inducing benefits of humor and laughter.

Laughter Boosts Health
The act of laughing itself causes the heart muscle and diaphragm to contract. This action forces air over the vocal cords, creating the rhythmic sound of laughter. The heart beats faster and the inner lining of the blood vessels dilate, which increases blood flow and sends more oxygen to the rest of the body. Circulation and muscle relaxation increase. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the body that contribute to relieving pain. It has also been shown to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. This chain reaction has a positive effect on both your physical and mental health.

In an article written for Laughter Online University, Why Laughter Scares Depression, Anxiety and Activates Happy Feelings, the author explains why better moods equal better health. “Laughter causes the body to release into the bloodstream high concentrations of different hormones and neuropeptides related to feelings of happiness, bonding, tolerance, generosity, compassion and unconditional love. The presence of this ‘joy cocktail’ precludes the production of other hormones and neuropeptides that are related to feelings of hatred, fear, violence, jealousy and aggression.”

Laughter Promotes Connection
In his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, researcher and science expert on laughter Dr. Robert Provine, says that laughter can draw us together socially. His research has shown that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people than when we are alone. He wrote, “Laughter is the social glue that draws group members into the fold. Laughter is not primarily about humor but about social relationships.” Among its many benefits, laughter has been shown to alleviate stress and connect us to others while also making life more fun. Laughing together puts us at ease with one another, making us more willing to open up. Some researchers have found that self-disclosure (sharing feelings with others) is known to be a primary building block in forming and maintaining relationships.

Laughter Accentuates the Positive
In her book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Oddsresearcher and psychotherapist Kelly Turner documented over 1,000 cases of people who defied a serious diagnosis and became free of disease.

Increasing positive emotions was one of nine key factors in the training regimen of those who went on to wholeness and disease-free living. One example of the power of positive emotion is illustrated in the story of Saranne Rothberg. A stage IV cancer survivor, Rothberg employed humor to heal herself and to become a world-renowned therapeutic, humor and laughter expert. She started her ComedyCures Foundation from her chemotherapy chair during her first treatment with a cell phone and laptop. Her non-profit was chosen to do the first comedy event at the United Nations. She has since partnered with the UN on many global projects for the ill and underserved. “Seeing the world through a positive lens and seeing challenges as opportunities is a muscle that you have to exercise,” says Rothberg, who has connected with more than one million people at almost 1,000 live events with this message.

Laughter Lifts
Our ability to laugh can be cultivated and practiced as we learn how to incorporate more fun into our daily lives. As Rothberg teaches, “Life is hard, and society is hard, and if you don’t consciously prepare yourself each day to practice wonder and joy, you get really good at practicing stress and pain and anger and anxiety and fear. Kids laugh 300 to 400 times a day. But grown-ups? We laugh only about 15 times a day.”

In order to build laughter equity, she suggests starting your own wellness joke book that includes all of your favorite jokes. She also advocates watching funny movies often with friends and families.

In addition to being healing medicine for the body, laughter has a unique ability to instantly lift the spirit. It helps us to clear our heads and shake off the blues. It encourages us to take a much-deserved rest in the gentleness of light-heartedness. When we share a laugh together, we are reminded that we are not alone. We are comforted as our joint laughter affirms our shared vision of this sometimes crazy but wonderful life. The poignant words of musician and producer Quincy Jones, Jr. sums it up: “I’ve always thought that a big laugh is a really loud noise from the soul saying, Ain’t that the truth?”

Learn more ways to live your healthiest life with tips from Dean Ornish.  

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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