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Laughter is healthy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is how laughter affects our body

“A day without laughter is a day wasted,” Charlie Chaplin once said. And he isn’t the only one to think this. Dr Lee S. Berk of the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions, and one of the pioneers of laughter research, also encourages people to laugh every day. Why does a researcher agree with a comedian? Because laughter is healthy.1 If you want to know how laughter can contribute to a healthy lifestyle, check out our article.

Gelotology — the study of humour or laughter

We have all heard the phase “laughter is the best medicine,” but what many people don’t know is there actually is science behind it. “Gelotology” (from gélos, meaning laughter) is the study of laughter or humour. Although researchers like William F. Fry and Lee S. Berk were initially ridiculed for their extraordinary field of interest, it has since become established as a recognised discipline.

Stanford professor William F. Fry was one of the first people to look at the psychological and physiological effects of laughter in the 1960s. Today his studies are regarded as the foundation of gelotology as Fry found that laughter increases the activity of certain cells in the immune system responsible for killing infectious pathogens.2

Is laughter really healthy?

When we laugh, happiness hormones (endorphins) are released.3 But laughing isn’t just about being happy — it is also healthy. Laughter researchers attribute several positive effects on our bodies to laughter. For instance, laughter can have a positive impact on the immune system.4 Experts also found that the stress hormone cortisol can be lowered by laughing.1 Have you ever tried to use laughter to combat stress? Laughter therapies have not only been found to help reduce stress but also to reduce pain.5 Humour research is giving the phrase “laughter is the best medicine” a whole new meaning.

Laughter can support the cardiovascular system

Michael Miller, from the Department of Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, together with William F. Fry, who is carrying out research at the Department of Psychiatry at Stanford University’s Medical School in Palo Alto, found that “mirthful laughter” can keep the blood vessels healthy.3 Their results are based on a study in which randomly selected subjects were first shown a comedy, or humorous TV programme, followed by a film that would trigger mental stress. The subjects’ blood pressure was measured during the experiment.

The study showed that blood pressure measurements, taken after watching a film that causes stress, differ from those taken after watching a comedy that stimulates laughter.3 The results can be explained by the fact that we take in more oxygen than usual when we laugh, due to increased breathing. As a result our pulse increases and blood pressure rises. After laughing the blood pressure drops again. As we are exposed to mild stress when watching serious, non-humorous films and series, this has the opposite effect on blood pressure.3

Whether it’s the latest comedy that’s showing in the cinema or a funny situation in our everyday lives, laughter can stimulate blood circulation and support the entire cardiovascular system.

Laughter can have a positive effect on the immune system

Negative thoughts can trigger chemical reactions and therefore induce stress – which in turn can weaken our immunity. Positive thoughts and genuine laughter, by contrast, can help to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system and protect the body from disease.4 Happiness helps our mental wellness. Lee S. Berk is convinced that happiness can also be an effective immune response.1

In a study with other laughter researchers, Berk wanted to find out whether humour therapy and the mirthful laughter it brings can actually serve a preventive function and have a positive effect on our immune system.6 For this purpose, 52 healthy male volunteers were shown a humorous video and had their blood taken before, during and after. The laughter researchers concluded that laughter associated with humour can have a positive effect on our immune system.6

Laughter against pain — the most natural pain reliever

We all know that laughter makes us happy. But have you ever considered endorphins as our body’s natural pain relievers? Laughter is not just able to support your immune system – it can also be used as a therapy.

British researchers found that laughter is associated with an increased pain threshold.5 Similarly, to their colleagues in the field of laughter research, they initially played funny comedies and sober documentaries to the subjects taking part in their study. They then expanded their investigations to test the effects of laughter on the pain threshold, even under natural conditions, during a humorous theatre performance. Before and after viewing the video clips, or the play, the test subjects underwent a pain threshold test.

In both cases the results of the British research group confirmed that our pain threshold is significantly increased when we laugh.5 If we are serious, or do not laugh genuinely, the pain threshold remains unchanged – or may even drop. According to the laughter researchers, the best explanation for the results is the effect that happiness hormones released by laughter have on pain.

Laughter to combat stress — a simple form of relaxation

When we laugh we get a boost of energy and the opportunity to switch off properly. Therefore, laughter can be a great form of stress reduction.4 In his numerous gelotology studies, Lee S. Berk found that laughter can cause positive stress (eustress) and therefore reduce negative stress (distress).1 This kind of stress reduction brought about by laughter is due to the fact that laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol in our body.

A study at Indiana State University’s Sycamore Nursing Center also found that laughter can reduce stress.7 The research group investigated the reaction of 33 healthy female subjects to humorous videos and tourism videos. While the group watching comedy videos that made them laugh saw a drop in stress markers the stress levels of the subjects in the other group remained the same.

The physical symptoms of stress can also be reduced by laughter as laughter can stimulate blood circulation and lead to muscle relaxation — both reactions of our body that can help reduce stress.4

Laughing as a workout? 

Do you ever wake up with sore muscles even though you didn’t exercise the day before? If so, you must have had a good laugh. When we laugh up to 300 muscles contract, mainly in the face, chest and stomach.8 As well as our muscles, our respiratory system is involved when we have a good laugh.3 Our lungs expand, and our abdominal muscles and chest stretch, working out almost our entire body.

When we exercise our body is very active for a short time. The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood through the body and the metabolism is stimulated. When we have a good laugh the body reacts in a similar way.8

However even people who laugh a lot should still stay active and ensure healthy nutrition.

Have you ever heard of laughter yoga? No joke, this type of yoga really exists. Laughter yoga is based on the idea that you can make yourself laugh and benefit from this.9 Laughter yoga is now widespread and you can be sure to find a laughter yoga group near you. Try it out and keep yourself healthy with laughter. 

Strengthen relationships with humour

Laughter not only affects our health but also our relationships. As Victor Borge put so well, laughter is the shortest distance between two people. Laughing together can strengthen our interpersonal relationships and understanding of each other.3 Besides, it’s a great feeling to infect other people with your laughter, don’t you agree?

Whether in private or at work, laughter contributes to good will and harmony. Sharing a laugh can therefore also facilitate communication and collaboration.3 In situations of stress or conflict, laughter can defuse the situation and promote teamwork.

Take life with a pinch of humour. Doing so can help you support your health and your social environment.

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  2. “Live Better: A Healthy Laugh” in SA Mind 16, 3, 90–91 (October 2005) doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind1005-90 []
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