For thousands of years, versions of the saying “laughter is the best medicine” have emerged in religious, scientific and popular literature—and for good reason. Laughter helps our neurological, physical, emotional, cognitive and social health and well-being in multiple ways.
To find out why laughter is so good for us, The Daily spoke with Eileen Anderson, the Anne Templeton Zimmerman MD Professor in Bioethics and director of education in bioethics and medical humanities at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Anderson is a psychological and medical anthropologist who completed a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental neuroscience, and is the founding director of the university’s Center for Medicine, Society and Culture. The center supports multidisciplinary exploration of people’s well-being in social, institutional and cultural contexts.
Anderson’s research on adolescent mental health and well-being in multiple cultures has pointed to the importance of laughter in experiences of joy, well-being and mental flexibility—along with young people’s feelings of belongingness, which are critical to mental health.
“My studies of college student mental health suggested that laughter helped students reduce stress and form social bonds, especially at the most stressful times of the academic year,” Anderson explained. “Conversely, when young people spend time in contexts where there is no room or ability for laughter for long periods of time, their sense of well-being diminishes.”
Evolutionarily, laughter is a signal that everything is okay and we can relax. Laughter is complex neurologically and engages many different parts of the brain. Depending on the duration and intensity of the laughter, several neurochemicals may be released. Studies have shown that serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and even endogenous opioids can be released when we laugh (discussed by function below).
2. Laughing improves your physical health.
Laughter has been shown to reduce the subjective experience of pain. Likely, this is due to the endorphins and endogenous opioids that can be created if a good laughter is sustained for 20-30 minutes, a finding that is heightened if among a positive social group. Norman Cousins, who fought his own debilitating pain with laughter, created “laugh therapy” which has since been adopted around the world.
Laughter has also been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, relax muscle tension and is associated with improved immune functioning. It reduces the limbic “fight or flight” response and can reduce cortisol over time. And laughter can even strengthen and tighten your abs.
3. Laughing increases your emotional well-being.
The increased neurotransmitters of serotonin and dopamine found with laughter increase our emotional well-being and mental health. Mood can be better regulated with a regular guffaw. The overall physiological calming effects of laughter can also help ease anxiety.
4. Laughing benefits your cognitive function.
Even a short bout of laughter during the workday can allow people to think more clearly and creatively. Taking a few minutes here and there during your day to look at funny memes, trade “dad jokes” with your colleagues, or think about something funny that happened to you or in a movie can translate to increased cognitive function and productivity.
5. Laughing impacts your social health.
Laughing evolved as a social event. Laughter is found in all cultures, though what someone finds funny varies by social group. The oxytocin released during laughter is an important neurochemical part of human social bonding. If you laugh on a date, you’re more likely to have a second date. Social groups who laugh together develop strong bonds. Parents who laugh with their children tend to have better communication overall.
So, get laughing! Whether it’s “laugh therapy,” a weekly funny movie night, beginning a meeting with a G-rated joke, or fake laughing with someone until it becomes real, you have every reason to incorporate more laughter into your life to improve your health and well-being.