Open Up and Say Ha Ha
The surprising reasons laughing is good for you
Grandma always said that laughter is the best medicine. But what do scientists say? While chuckling can’t cure cancer, it does have some measurable health benefits—it’s good for your heart, your brain, your relationships and your overall sense of well-being.
Laughing is considered a sign of happiness, but it also brings it on, triggering the brain to release feel-good neurotransmitters: dopamine, which helps the brain process emotional responses and enhances our experience of pleasure; serotonin, which buoys our mood; and endorphins, which regulate pain and stress and induce euphoria. A recent study even showed that laughing with others releases endorphins via opioid receptors, which suggests that laughter-produced euphoria is like a narcotic—but without the obvious drawbacks.
Beyond a mood lift, laughing often may help prevent a heart event. Common daily challenges—big workloads, overdue bills or conflicts with loved ones—can cause chronic stress as they continually trigger our ancient fight-or-flight response, in turn causing our blood vessels to constrict and our blood pressure to rise. That can lead to myriad health problems, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke. But like cholesterol-lowering drugs and aerobic exercise, a good laugh can actually counteract the effect of stress. In 2005, researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that laughter increases blood flow by dilating the inner lining of vessels. Your heart doesn’t have to pump as hard, which reduces your blood pressure.
Laughter is also an antidote to pain, and so increases our endurance. A 2011 Oxford University study showed that subjects’ pain thresholds were significantly higher after laughing, due to that endorphin-mediated opiate effect. This means that sharing a joke with a friend can help you squeeze out a few extra reps at the gym or go further on your daily walk. A good belly laugh also happens to be a bit of a workout on its own—it exercises several muscle groups, including your abdomen, back, shoulders, diaphragm and face.
Joking around is also a boon to our social life, and laughter is 30 times more likely to occur with others than when we’re alone. These shared giggles act to reinforce and maintain our sense of togetherness by way of endorphin dominoes: when someone starts laughing, others will laugh, even if they’re not sure what everyone is on about. Laughter is, quite literally, contagious. And when you laugh, you’re accessing an ancient system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social connection, according to Sophie Scott, a British cognitive neuroscientist. That social connection is vital to our physical and mental health—it strengthens our immune system and lengthens our life. People who feel more connected to others have higher self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression and are more empathetic.
Babies inherently understand the importance of shared laughs, says Dr Caspar Addyman, a developmental psychologist and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab at the University of London. “Babies can make you laugh and you can make them laugh almost instantaneously, no jokes involved,” he says. “It’s all about connection.” As Scott points out, even for adults, laughter isn’t always connected to humour—we laugh to show people we understand them, that we agree with them, that we’re part of the group and that we like or even love them.
So go ahead and be silly with someone you care about—it’s the quickest and easiest way to lighten your mental load and improve your physical well-ewbeing. It’s pretty fun, too.