The major health benefits of laughter and why we do it
- Laughter can help you combat stress, bond and join with others, and improve
- Some ways to incorporate more laughter into everyday life include hanging out with funny friends, checking out comedy, watching funny cat videos, and laughter yoga.
Taking care of your health is no joke. Fortunately, there's one treatment that doesn't need a prescription: laughter. While the occasional chuckle may seem trivial, laughter is an evolved behavior that has persisted over time.
In fact, a 2009 study traced the first signs of laughter to at least 10 to 16 million years ago. So what's the point of laughing?
Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, says laughing carries many integral functions to everyday life from an early age. In fact, laughter is seen in babies as early as 3 to 4 months.
"Laughter is an essential tool to combat stress, bond and join with others, and improve health," says Romanoff. "We often take these effects for granted, and we should be more mindful of the powerful impact of laughter to utilize and channel these benefits more frequently in daily life."
Here's why laughter is important for your mind, body, and social relationships.
Why do people laugh?
Laughter is a social behavior that mostly happens when we're with others. Romanoff says this is because laughter serves as a cue for social connection and relationship formation.
A 2013 study found humor and laughing important in making a good first impression with someone you've never met. Laughter was also linked to facilitating connection with a stranger - it can strengthen social bonding, and in turn, make you more attractive to others.
"There are also group effects of laughter, as laughter may be more of a response to social situations rather than to specific content," Romanoff tells Insider. A 2004 article found people were 30 times more likely to laugh in groups than by themselves.
The brain may recognize laughter associated with other people and process it differently. A small 2013 study identified three types of laughter:
- Tickle-based laughter: This is activated in the left temporoparietal junction which is important for processing language.
- Joyful laughter that comes from laughing with someone: This type of laughter is activated by the precuneus/posterior cingulum and middle cingulum/precuneus, which are two areas involved in processing complex social information
- Mockery or laughing at someone: Similar to joyful laughter, mocking someone is also activated by the precuneus/posterior cingulum and middle cingulum/precuneus.
Several factors, including the development of language and spirituality, may have pushed humans to evolve the complex cognitive processes needed to create humor. A 2015 study found a link between a variant of the 5-HTTLPR gene and having more positive expressions, such as smiling and laughter. This suggests that positive emotions have a genetic component, although more research is needed.
Some groups of people tend to laugh more than others. According to Joseph Mosquera, MD, a medical expert with RxSaver, adults don't laugh nearly as often as children. The average adult laughs 17 times per day compared to a child who laughs approximately 300 times.
Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, says that stress may contribute to this disparity. "A child who has minimal responsibilities is more likely to enjoy their life and laugh than someone who is a middle-aged adult. Someone in their 40s is more likely to be working hard to provide for their family and may be more stressed and laugh less," he says.
Lagoy also says some cultures are more predisposed to laughter. A 2019 study found Easterners were less likely to have a favorable view of humor than Westerners and were less likely to use humor as a coping mechanism.
What are the benefits of laughter?
Laughter offers plenty of health benefits. Many of those benefits, including stress reduction and giving a boost to your immune system, are associated with the sheer amount of feel-good chemicals your brain releases when you laugh. These include:
- Serotonin: A mood-enhancing chemical in the brain that produces feelings of calmness and
happiness. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and anxiety.
- Oxytocin: Releasing this neuropeptide promotes social bonding amongst family and significant others. Oxytocin has also been shown to increase cooperation and teamwork.
- Dopamine: This chemical is involved in pleasure and reward. By laughing, the release of dopamine also helps with feeling less anxious.
- Endorphins: Mosquera says endorphins help promote positive feelings and relaxation - they're the same chemicals that cause a runner's high. Through an endorphin-mediated opioid effect, laughter may help ease physical pain.
Mosquera says laughter is a process that indirectly helps a stressed-out immune system. According to a small 2020 study, laughing may increase the number of natural killer cells in your body, which are white blood cells that play an important role in defending against viruses and bacteria.
The benefits of laughter may be a decent mini-workout, as well. A small 2006 study recorded the heart rate of 45 participants who watched 10-minute comedy clips. Researchers measured their body composition and found that genuine laughter increased heart rate up to 20% and could potentially burn up to 40 calories in a 10 to 15-minute session of laughing.
What can you do to laugh more?
The Mayo Clinic supports the idea that practicing laughter may feel forced at first, but it can still make a difference in reducing stress. Here are some methods to try that could help you laugh more:
Laughter yoga: One way to incorporate more laughter into everyday life is through laughter yoga. This form of yoga consists of prolonged voluntary laughing, clapping, and deep abdominal breathing techniques. A small 2014 article found laughter yoga effectively decreased anxiety and stress and improved mood.
Hang out with funny friends: Since laughter is important for building social relationships, Lagoy advises sticking with funny and playful friends while avoiding individuals who are often negative or toxic.
Check out comedy: For those who prefer their alone time, turning on your favorite sitcom, reading a funny comic, or watching funny cat videos can also improve mood, as well as boost energy and laughter.
Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself: It may also help to laugh at yourself. Romanoff says that people tend to suppress their laughter in public due to fears of feeling foolish or judged. One way to train yourself to laugh is to put yourself in the mindset of a child, advises Lagoy. "Do not be afraid to laugh and make fun of yourself," he says. "Do not always be negative or dwell on the negatives, and try to be more like a child by laughing at ordinary things and enjoying the little, fun moments in life."
There are many ways to reap the benefits of laughter, whether you're by yourself or with others.
Is laughter the best medicine? While Lagoy does not consider laughter a cure-all, he says that laughing's effect on health still makes it worthwhile.
Romanoff agrees: "Laughter has been found to have a strong impact on resilience, the tolerance of physical and emotional pain, blood pressure, and illness symptoms," she says. "Combined, these speak to the powerful effects this simple act has on relationships [and] on mental and physical health."
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