The science of laughter and why it's good for us | CNN (2023)

The science of laughter and why it's good for us | CNN (1)

Laughter is a surprisingly complicated process, engaging multiple regions of the brain and the body.

CNN

Everyone likes a good belly laugh from time to time, and science supports that feeling.

Studies have shown that laughing is linked to our physical, emotional and mental well-being – even our relationships.

Here are some things you might not know about laughter.

Laughter is thought to have evolved as a form of social bonding in animals and as a way to express playful intention. Many mammals laugh when they are tickled and when they engage in physical play.

But humans don’t need a physical trigger to laugh – though generally we can’t help but laugh if we’re tickled.

Janet Gibson, a professor emerita of cognitive psychology at Grinnell College in Iowa, said that laughter evolved in humans as a communication signal.

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Hundreds of years ago, “laughter was the glue that kept the group together,” she told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his Chasing Life podcast.

“The idea was that laughter was an external signal that can tell the group everything is OK, we can relax. (There is) no need to be anxious or threatened by what’s happening around us. And so this would really be a great survival tool for groups of humans,” she explained.

“And the belief is, is that over the centuries, the brain kept these connections so that we now laugh when … we hear things that are relaxing, funny, surprising, amusing.”

Anthropologists think that laughter is universal, but that doesn’t mean every culture finds the same things funny.

Laughing is a primitive noise

Laughter is a surprisingly complicated process, engaging multiple regions of the brain and the body.

The frontal lobe is thought to help you interpret the various bits of information you receive – the sounds and images – and then it decides whether they are funny. That triggers an emotional response in the limbic system, which controls feelings like pleasure and fear and that in turn stimulates your motor cortex, explained Gupta in the podcast.

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This controls your physical response – the guffaws, snorts and chuckles we recognize as laughter.

“When you start to laugh you get a fairly large contraction in the rib cage – very large and very fast. Those contractions push air – ha, ha, ha. It’s a very primitive way of making noise. At the brain level, it’s associated with a change in the circulating endorphins,” said Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.

This can give you a pain-killing sensation. As you laugh, it lowers your adrenaline levels and over a longer time frame your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, she explained. As such, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense.

“You’re more relaxed, less stressed, and you have a pleasant buzzy feeling,” she said.

Couples who laugh together stay together

A long-running study of couples at the University of California, Berkeley, of more than 150 long-term relationships that started in 1989 has suggested that laughter is the glue that keeps people together.

Satisfied couples laugh more than unsatisfied ones, found the study team, led by Robert Levenson, professor of psychology. In one experiment, the couples were asked to discuss a problem or conflict in their relationship while they were videotaped, and a polygraph measured different physiological and emotional signs.

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Laughter during the stressful conversation was associated with emotions becoming more positive.

“You see people starting to get stressed, and what you find is that couples who deal with increased feeling of stress, the ones who react to that with laughter not only get less stressed immediately but they are couples that tend to be happier in their relationships and tend to stay together longer,” said Scott, who was not involved in the study.

“It’s not that the laughter is magic dust. It’s more like laughter is a sign of a relationship where people can use laughter to negotiate a better way together,” she added.

In defusing tense situations, she said that laughter can make it easier for couples to communicate and maintain relationship bonds – important planks of relationship satisfaction.

It’s very hard to explain why something is funny

While psychologists and comedians have tried to come up with one, there is no universal theory for what makes something funny.

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People sometimes find amusement in the misfortunes of others, in the expression of otherwise forbidden emotions, or in violating a norm but in a nonthreatening way, Scott said.

But sometimes sounds or words can just be inherently funny.

“Any theory of humor always falls down because we can’t explain all the things that are funny, and it can’t be used to generate jokes. Laughter is a really important part of play, and maybe that’s where a lot of adult human play behavior goes, it feeds into humor.”

Laughter can also have a dark side.

Inappropriate laughter can sometimes be a sign that something is cognitively amiss. An early sign of dementia is an altered sense of humor and laughing at inappropriate moments, one study found.

What’s more, laughter doesn’t always accompany genuinely felt emotions – it can also be for social display. People will use laughter to defuse a stressful situation or a joke to break the ice. However, whether it works or not depends on whether the other person joins in and laughs with you, as anyone who has had a punch line fall flat knows.

Laughter is about people, not jokes

Laughter is 30 times more likely to occur in the company of others than when one is alone. It’s also contagious. You’re much more likely to laugh if you hear someone else laughing.

“When you have endorphins circulating through the brain, you feel good. When you laugh, you’re inhaling more oxygen. So, all the cells of your brain are getting more oxygen, as well as the cells of your body,” Gibson said.

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“It’s just a tool in your medicine cabinet to help you feel better. And I’d say it’s free, and it brings in all these other benefits that it’s a great tool to use and not to be dismissed as silly or worthless. “

It’s hard to separate the benefits of laughter and the context in which you would laugh. As such, if you want to harness the healing power of laughter, a funny movie might help – but it’s really the connections laughter builds with other people that count.

FAQs

How does laughter help us? ›

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. Activate and relieve your stress response.

Why is laughter the best medicine and why? ›

Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

Is laughter a proven way to lose weight? ›

The fact is that as you laugh, the muscles in your belly expand and contract fully, which is exactly like exercising your abs. Actually, one study showed that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes every day can help a person burn about 40 calories - which is equivalent to losing three or four pounds over the course of a year.

Do we need a reason to laugh? ›

Reduces stress –Laughter helps shift difficult emotions, freeing the body and mind of stress. Frees the mind to be more creative and productive –Laughter has a similar effect on the brain as meditation, bringing you very much into the present moment.

Why is it important to smile and laugh? ›

Laughter stimulates organs. It can enhance your intake of oxygen, stimulate your heart and other muscles and decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. Less stress, better social relationships and a stronger overall feeling of happiness can indeed help you weather the physical effects of aging.

Is laughter good for the brain? ›

The bottom line: Laughing increases the brain's production of endorphins — the natural way your body relieves pain, reduces stress and boosts mood. Laughing also increases your intake of oxygen-rich air and blood flow and circulation, which can improve brain health.

Does the Bible say laughter is good for the soul? ›

You've likely heard the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. That happens to come from the Bible! Proverbs 17:22 is true—a merry heart really does a spirit, soul and body good like medicine.

What does the Bible say about laughter? ›

One of my favorite Bible verses about laughter comes from Proverbs 17:22 which says, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” A cheerful heart can include laughter. When we think about the heart being merry that is the inward working of the joy of Christ.

Is laughter good for the soul? ›

Laughter comes in as the balancing element. When you enjoy a burst of laughter, your body produces high levels of feel-good hormones. These hormones help you relieve stress and relax your body. This way, you improve your well-being and become healthy.

Is laughing better than working out? ›

Just like exercise, laughter can increase blood flow to the heart and improve vascular health, great for both heart rate and blood pressure control. Humour is good for the heart. Laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels and dramatically helps with cardiovascular health.

Can laughing cause a fit? ›

Laugh-induced seizure is an extremely rare and probably unrecognized condition and thus can easily be misdiagnosed.

Does laughing clear your lungs? ›

“When you laugh, your lungs get rid of stale air allowing more oxygen to enter. This is because laughter helps to expand alveoli, the tiny air sacs in your lungs. Expanding these means that the area for oxygen exchange is bigger and more oxygen enters your lungs.”

What would happen if you couldn't stop laughing? ›

Laughing too hard may prevent adequate breathing or cause a person to stop breathing, depriving their body of oxygen. This type of death is likely with a nitrous oxide overdose.

What is the cause of laughter? ›

It's one of the body's emotional and physical responses to certain stimulation. Most often, it reflects positive emotional states such as joy or happiness, but it can also result from emotional states such as embarrassment or confusion.

In which situation we should not laugh? ›

Let us know about the five places where a person should not laugh:
  • Cremation ground: One should never laugh at a cremation ground. ...
  • Deceased person: Never laugh on a dead body. ...
  • Heartbroken family/person: Whenever one visits a bereaved family one should also avoid joke. ...
  • Temple: We must never laugh in a temple.
Feb 25, 2021

Does laughing really extend your life? ›

Other studies have shown that laughter can help reduce inflammatory compounds. These lead to inflammation in older adults, which helps diseases such as arthritis and cancer progress. In this way, laughter may indeed help people live longer.

Why do I love laughter? ›

Endorphins trigger feelings of pleasure; people can endure 15% more pain simply by laughing for a few minutes beforehand. Other health benefits: improved immune functioning, stress relief, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, sense of safety, and improved mood.

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