Laughing as Medicine: The Benefits of a Sharing a Laugh
Laughter is a universal language. You learn to laugh at around 17 days of age—and continue to guffaw, chuckle, and giggle throughout your lifetime. And that’s a good thing because laughing as medicine may be more than a fun adage.
While it’s no substitute for modern medicine, evidence proves laughter is good for you. It also helps to share a laugh. It’s a great way to connect with others. Laughter can ease tense situations, help form friendships, and ultimately, just make you feel good.
Laughter vs. Humor
What’s funny and how you respond to it are two different things. Humor is anything that evokes a response to a story or an observation that shifts your normal expectations.
For example, the idea of a duck walking into a bar to order a drink is funny because you know ducks prefer ponds over pubs—and they don’t drink alcohol. The joke teller is trying to share a silly story to test your imagination and elicit a response.
Humor ranges from droll, deadpan, morbid, farcical, highbrow, sophomoric, silly, and ironic. Regardless of classification, your physical response to humor is laughter. It manifests verbally and through traditional gestures—like smiling, shoulder shrugging, and knee slapping.
The Mechanisms of Laughing
Let’s say you just heard a really funny joke. Instantly, the corners of your mouth go up to form a smile. You emit a series of “ha-ho-ha-hos” while slapping your knee. Your chest might hurt from laughing. It’s even possible you have tears running down your cheeks. And if it was a really, really good joke, you might even start to blackout.
Your body reacts the moment your brain processes something as funny. The zygomaticus major—the strong muscle that stretches across your cheek—contracts your mouth into a smile. The rest of your 20 facial muscles are stimulated into action, causing your eyes to shut and your cheeks to involuntarily move back and forth. Tear ducts are activated.
The sound of laughter comes from your respiratory system going into distress. The epiglottis—a leaf-shaped flap that prevents food from entering the windpipe—flutters, causing a partial closure of the larynx. And while you’re laughing, your lungs are not receiving enough oxygen. This can cause your face to flush, or in extreme circumstances, cause you to blackout.
It’s commonly believed the other physical indicators of laughter, like slapping your leg, titling your head back, or shaking your hands, are etiquette laughs. This behavior is a way to connect with a group by exaggerating your approval of the joke.
Laughing as Medicine—The Physical Benefits
It’s no joke that laughing can be good for your health. For starters, your immune system benefits from ample laughs in a day. People who laugh have an increase in T cells and natural killer cells (NK cells). These powerful members of the immune system help fight off invaders and keep you healthy. Laughter can also reduce stress and improve NK cell activity, thereby helping support your immunity.
Laughter is also good for your heart. Has your body ever felt sore after a good laugh? Researchers have discovered that intense laughter gives your body a short burst of aerobic exercise. A hard laugh can increase your heart rate, respiratory level, and oxygen consumption. While laughing isn’t a good substitute for regular exercise, a hearty chuckle does provide physical perks.
The benefits of laughter can extend to help your entire cardiovascular system. Blood vessels, like the arteries and veins that are primary to the circulatory system, are responsible for transporting blood throughout your body. They circulate blood to and from your heart. All blood vessels have an inner lining—the endothelium—allowing them to relax and expand, increasing blood flow.
Evidence exists that laughter helps your blood vessels function more effectively by engaging the endothelium. When you’re stressed or unhappy, your body may release adrenaline and noradrenalin—hormones that cause blood vessels to constrict. Laughter or happiness can limit the release of these hormones, lessening stress on your blood vessels and improving their structure.
And funny enough, laughing gas—nitric oxide—can be released into your bloodstream while you’re having a chuckle. Nitric oxide is produced throughout the human body. It’s a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes the endothelium, helping to widen the blood vessel. A good belly laugh releases beta-endorphins into your bloodstream. Because you’re feeling good from the endorphins, cells are triggered to release additional nitric oxide into your bloodstream, relaxing your blood pressure.
The physical benefits of laughter don’t end there. When it comes to pain tolerance, laughing as medicine is no joke. As you laugh, endorphins may be released into your bloodstream, giving you a calming feeling. Laughing also requires your body to take deeper breaths, which can help relax your muscles.
Laughing is also key to memory. Teachers who incorporate humor into their lectures create a less stressful learning environment. Students were more likely to remember key points from a lecture where the teacher interjected jokes about relevant topics. The findings suggest contextual humor can help you retain information.
As you age, if you associate humor with information, you’re more likely to transfer short-term memories into long-term memories. Seniors who engage in fun, light-hearted activities are more likely to remember what they’ve done.
Unstress and Build Connection with a Good Laugh
When something tickles your funny bone, your body rewards you with a rush of hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine. Laughter can even naturally produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that help with pain.
Individuals who laugh 15 or more times a day can increase the number of antibodies in their system. A daily dose of giggles and smiles can help support your immune system while limiting the physical effects of stress.
Although anger, guilt, and grief aren’t usually associated with laughter, it’s quite effective when dealing with intense emotions. Even a small chuckle can help put situations into perspective and give you the opportunity to reshape your view of events. That’s because laughter provides a distraction from negative emotions. Psychologists believe humor is even valuable to lessen the effects of threatening situations.
The social benefits of laughter are endless. And they aren’t just reserved for the deep belly laugh. Simple acts of kindness or courtesy—including a heartfelt smile—can replicate the feelings of laughter. You can elevate the general mood of the people around you simply by laughing and smiling.
Laughter is characteristically contagious. Consider this: when you see two people sharing a laugh at a distance, there’s a good chance you will smile, too. Humans mirror each other. It starts in infancy with babies copying their parents’ behavior. As you create social bonds with others, it’s natural to draw upon past positive mannerisms and try to replicate them. Your body naturally smiles as a reaction to pleasurable experiences, so it’s normal for others—who aren’t even sharing the positive experience—to mimic a smile.
Scientists have suggested that laughter was a precursor to language. This theory is wrapped up in the social brain hypothesis. This popular notion says humans’ brains are larger than other animals because early humans lived in large groups. The brain developed into a larger organ due to the demand to remember other members of the group and the relationship between each individual.
This gave rise to the importance of socializing. Unable to vocalize emotion, early humans emitted short bursts of laughter to signify pleasure to other members of the group. As humans physically developed the ability to speak, laughter remained a way of communicating feelings of appreciation to other group members.
A Good Dose of Laughter
Exercise can help keep your body in motion. A healthy diet can give your body the right nutrients. And a good dose of laughter is excellent to keep your spirits up, improve mood, and naturally make you feel better. So, it’s important to maintain a healthy, humorous perspective on life.
That makes the answer to the original question ‘is laughing as medicine a ridiculous, joke-worthy concept?’ a resounding no. Even if it won’t replace modern medical practices, laughter can be part of your healthy lifestyle.
Everyone finds different things funny. But if you can increase the amount of laughter in your life, you’ll be better able to deal with stressful situations, increase creativity, support your health, and have a more positive outlook to take on your day.