March 06, 2022
Scientists are discovering some surprising health benefits to laughter, but before we discuss those let’s look at what we know (and don’t know!) about this universal human experience.
First of all, why do we laugh? What could possibly be the purpose for this rather primitive response to something funny? Researchers admit that they don’t really know for sure, but there are some interesting theories.
Some researchers in cognitive psychology believe that laughter evolved as a communication signal between humans as an external audible signal that there was no danger and everyone could relax. The scientists postulate that over eons those brain wirings were conserved.
Although laughter is a universal human phenomenon, not all cultures find the same things funny. Laughter itself is also surprisingly complicated and requires multiple regions of the brain to be involved. These brain regions include your frontal lobe, which takes in the information you receive and helps to make sense of it, as well as the limbic system, which is involved in the emotional response to that information. These neural signals control the physical response, which is initiated with a very large contraction of the rib cage, forcing air out of the lungs and producing the characteristic “ha ha ha” sound. Also, when you laugh, you are taking in more oxygen, perfusing the tissues of your body and brain.
When your brain responds to something funny, your level of circulating endorphins rises. Endorphins are proteins that are naturally produced by the body to better handle pain or stress. They have been called the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals. This rise in endorphins can reduce your perception of pain and as you continue to laugh, the response also lowers the levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
These responses can lead to an improvement in mood and can also help to temper your physical and emotional responses to a stressful situation. After a bout of laughter, you are likely to feel relaxed, less stressed, and just, in general, feel good.
Laughter is also contagious. Research shows that you are 30 times more apt to laugh in the presence of others than when you are alone. That backs up the research that says laughter is also good for relationships. One study showed that couples who routinely laugh together have more durable relationships than those that don’t.
There is also no good agreement on why people find certain things funny. Laughter can also be a sign that something is amiss. For example, people with early dementia will often laugh inappropriately at something.
Other health benefits of laughter include a boost in your immune system and keeping your heart healthy. Laughter helps the heart not only by increasing the amount of oxygen in your blood but also leads to a decrease in arterial wall stiffness, which has been linked to the development of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The boost to your immune system comes from the antibodies which are released in response to laughter and which can help protect you from viruses.
Perhaps the most surprising finding on laughter and health is that it increases the chance of becoming pregnant! A study done in 2011 with women who were undergoing an in vitro fertilization procedure, were 16 percent more likely to become pregnant when they were entertained by a clown than those participants who did not have the clown present. The only question here is who came up with the idea for this study?!
But even if you’re not trying to become pregnant, laughter has plenty of proven health benefits: stress and anxiety reduction, a boost to your immune system, an increase in the quality of your relationships, an improvement in cardiovascular functioning, and help with pain control. All of this is more than enough evidence that yes, laughter is truly the best medicine!