The article reviews the many benefits of laughter and the science behind them. In a nutshell here is what you really need to know: Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!
Yes, sufficient randomized controlled clinical trials have not been conducted validating the therapeutic efficacy of laughter. BUT: Laughter has positive, quantifiable physiological and psychological effects on certain aspects of health. In the clinical setting, laughter interventions can be used with preventive intent (lifestyle medicine) or as a complementary or alternative therapeutic option to other established therapeutic strategies. Benefits have been reported in geriatrics, oncology, critical care, pain management, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, home care, palliative care, hospice care, terminal care, and general patient care. These and other reports constitute sufficient substantiation to support what is experientially evident — laughter is a valid therapeutic ally in healing.
Background on the health benefits of laughter
Read these 4 articles to better understand where Laughter Therapy is coming from:
- Laughter Therapy History: Who, What, When: Public interest in laughter therapy started to develop in the 1960s and grew from there. This was also a time when the dominance of humor as the main avenue to laughter was increasingly challenged.
- Research On Laughter: Why It Was Blocked For Decades: The world of medicine taught until 1975 that the human nervous system was entirely cut off from the immune system. To say that laughter had any kind of positive impact on health was to make a claim without evidence. Neuropharmacologist Candace Pert changed everything in 1985.
- Norman Cousins Anatomy Of An Illness: Read the story, learn the wisdom, and watch the movie of a man who challenged science on its sceptic position towards laughter, and won.
- How many people have died from laughing? The answer is not many, and the benefit-harm balance is very favorable for laughter. “The incidence of heart attack while shoveling snow, for persons with impaired heart function, is alarmingly high,” says Dr. William Fry, professor emeritus at Stanford University, a man who has studied the health aspects of laughter for decades. “But unexpectedly and against logic, the incidence of heart attacks suffered while laughing is surprisingly low.”
On the many benefits of laughing, visually
What does laughter do? Here two infographic that describe both what science currently knows about the benefits of laughing, as well as my personal explanation of how it works:
Laughter and physical health
- Provides low impact exercise and burns calories: When you laugh, all your body systems are affected in a positive manner. It is particularly important for seniors as well as bedridden or wheelchair-bound people. It is a unique way to enhance one’s daily wellbeing.
- Regulates Blood Pressure: Laughter balances blood pressure. The relaxation of the muscles in conjunction with the increased heart rate allows the blood to flow more freely throughout our body. At the same time if our blood pressure is low it can be increased over time due to the aerobic exercise that it provides.
- Reduces Pain: Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers. They are released into our spinal cord and then distributed throughout our nervous system when we laugh. Regular laughter is often used to assist with chronic pain management.
- Increases Oxygen: Laughter provides more oxygen to the brain and body cells. It does this by increasing the exhalation process. When we laugh the diaphragm forces the air from our lungs so that when it drops more air is inspired into the lungs ready for distribution.
- Boosts the Immune System: When you laugh, the diaphragm becomes a powerful pump for your lymphatic circulation, much like your heart serves as the central pump that propels blood through your blood vessels. This assists the lymphatic vessels in carrying this fluid through your body and helps your lymph nodes to clean and filter this fluid, removing waste products, dead cells, and even unwanted microorganisms. Maintaining clean body fluids is important because these are necessary for you to be at your best. Increased lymphatic flow equals an elevated, improved immune system. Read this poem: Lymphatics And Laughter
- Helps to think more clearly, breaks the cycle of psychological negativity, helps patients communicate emotions: To paraphrase Catherine Rippenger Fenwick, “Your body cannot heal without play. Your mind cannot heal without laughter. Your soul cannot heal without joy.”
- Stress management tool: A coping mechanism and great neutralizer: Laughter stimulates circulation, aids muscle relaxation and recharges our batteries by enriching the blood with ample supplies of oxygen, the lifeline of our system, cutting through energy-sapping emotions and replacing them with energizing emotions.
Laughter and emotional health
- Helps Depression and Anxiety: You can’t be depressed or anxious and laugh. Depression lives in the past and anxiety in the future. When we laugh we are in the present.
- Enables you to shift into a more positive mood quickly: Laughter is an effective recovery activity at the start, or at the end of the workday or during a break.
Laughter and social health
- Improves Cooperation, Communication, Romance: Laughing together can greatly improve cooperation and empathy between people of different cultural backgrounds. It fosters better communication, which leads to a less confrontational approach in tense situations and a change from individual competitiveness to team cooperation. It’s also an indicator of family vitality and healthy couples.
Laughter and spiritual health
- Benefits Of Laughter According To The Bible: 20 verses that speak of joy and laughter.
- (How) Did The Buddha Laugh? Buddha’s laughter is a state of release from inner tensions into inner harmony. The Buddha does not laugh at himself or at others, he does not laugh because he has acquired something others don’t have. The laughter is neither cynical, sarcastic, bitter nor defiant. It is the laughter of compassion, an amusement at the interplay of knowledge and ignorance that makes up the joys and sorrows of what we call life.
- Waraiko: A gift of laughter: An ancient Japanese ceremony to offer one’s heartiest laughter to the gods, still celebrated annually after 800 years.
- Poem: Happiness Isnowhere: You may laugh. I do too, for what isn’t funny? On the great stage of life that’s my epiphany.
Who knew laughing had so much to offer?
- 350+ Scientific Research Papers on Laughter: Compiled by Don L. F. Nilsen, English Department, Arizona State University Tempe, AZ
- Top 10 most prescribed drugs in the USA, How laughter can help: The only possible problem is that laughter is free, and we don’t value what’s free.
- Top 10 most successful drugs in the USA, How laughter can help
- Should doctors medicate people who laugh too much? As you will understand in this article, answering this question is not that simple.
- 15 Fascinating Facts About Our Smiles: Everyone loves the quote “laughter is the best medicine,” and you have probably even experienced the benefits of smiling and laughter. But did you know that the simple act of smiling can boost your mood and even your immune system?
- The Duke SMILE Studies: Can Exercising Replace Antidepressants?: Yes! This and other studies suggest that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.
- The Mystery of Ticklish Laughter: Some scientists believe that laughing caused by tickling is a built-in reflex. If this is true, then, theoretically, you should be able to tickle yourself. But you can’t.
Visualizing the benefits of laughter in 81 seconds
Famous quotes on the benefits of laughter
A closer look at some of the many people who experience the benefits of laughter
How Laughter Helps In Schools And in the World Of Education: Laughter promotes childlike playful behavior, and social play is critical to the development of children’s social skills and emotional intelligence. Restricted play results in deficient social skills which can lead to life-long physical, mental, emotional and social problems.
- How laughter helps seniors: Promotes a feeling of closeness and fraternity, helps generate a positive attitude, boosts self-esteem and overcomes feelings of insecurity. Increases quality of life.
- How laughter helps people with disabilities: It’s easy to do! It also relieves pain, dissipates anger, alleviates sadness and depression, dispels fear, lowers stress and anxiety, helps to safely express emotions.
- Six Surprising Ways Laughter Can Help You Live Longer: Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina found that people with poor social networks (aka few friends) are 50 percent more likely to die sooner than those with “robust social ties.” Having a large social circle, says the study, can make as much difference to your life expectancy as a life without smoking cigarettes.
- Lewy Body Dementia Treatment: Why And How Laughter Can Help
- Parkinson’s Disease Treatment: How Laughter Helps
- Parkinson Disease Treatment: How Laughter Helps (Part 2)
- How Laughter Helps With Diabetes
- How Laughter Helps With Substance Abuse, Creates Natural High
- Laughter Big De-stressor, Helps Women Getting pregnant
- Laughter In Jails And Prisons: Why And How It Works
- The Economics Of Workplace Laughter, Boosts Morale, Positivity, Productivity
- Why Laughter Helps In Cancer Prevention and Recovery, Creates Humorglobins
- Why Laughter Is Good Prescription For Leg Ulcers
Did you know?
- All humans laugh, and laughter always involves a similar pattern of whooping noises. The sound of laughter is so common and familiar that it can be recognized if played backwards on tape. Deaf people who have never heard a sound still make laughing noises1.
- The laughing noises produced by humans share many of the acoustic properties of speech, which is further evidence that laughter is hijacking the brain and body apparatus that we use for breathing and talking.
- Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 report laughing the most.
- In terms of quantity there is no marked difference between laughter in men and women. Differences do exist, but on sounds and acoustic features (quality). In women, laughter predominates (“ha ha ha” and other vowels). In men, unvoiced laughter is frequently alternated with voiced laughter (puffs, whistles, growls, roars)2. Watch Professor June Gruber from Yale University explain the research findings of Dr. Jo-Anne Bachorowski on gender differences in laughter at http://lou.pm/mwl.
- The majority of men report that their laughter is a chuckle, and the majority of women report that theirs is a giggle.
- Smiling is a mild, silent form of laughing.
- Infants start to smile within the first five weeks of life and laugh at around four months3.
Six different types of laughter according to the Uvasagadasao
The Uvasagadasao (an ancient Jain treatise) classifies hasya – or laughter and wit – into six types4:
- Smita, or gentle smile
- Hasita, or smile
- Vihasita, or gentle laughter
- Upahasita, or laughter of derision
- Apahasita, or vulgar laughter
- Atihasita, or excessive laughter
Why laughter is contagious and humor is not
Hypothesis 1: We can’t help it
Even though we laugh from all over our brain6, the areas that control laughing lie deep in the sub-cortex, and in terms of evolutionary development these parts of the brain are ancient, and are responsible for primal behaviors such as breathing and controlling basic reflexes. This means laughter control mechanisms are located a long way away from brain regions that developed later and control higher functions such as language or even memory. Perhaps this explains why it is so hard to suppress a laugh even if we know it is inappropriate, or why the brain responds even when we smile at ourselves in the mirror or simulate laughing with enthusiasm. Once a laugh is kindled deep within our brains these ‘higher function’ brain regions have trouble intervening.
Hypothesis 2: We are tuned for laughter
Humans may be “tuned” for laughter much in the same way that songbirds are “tuned” for song, especially their own specific family song. While birdsong of one species may sound the same to you and me, there are subtle differences between various individual on that species. Certain nerve cells in the songbird’s brain “fire” in response to hearing his song. Perhaps humans have specialized nerve cells that respond to laughter. After all, laughter is a specialized vocalization, and we are “tuned” to respond to vocalizations with language.
Hypothesis 3: It’s because of mirror neurons
Another possible reason why laughter is contagious is because of mirror neurons. This is addressed in an article in Explore magazine entitled Strange Contagions: of Laughter, Jumps, Jerks, and Mirror Neurons (2010). The author, Larry Dossey, describes several cases of “laughter epidemics” and uncontrollable laughter called “laughing jags” (p. 119). The phenomenon that laughter is contagious is attributed to mirror neurons that fire in both the individual laughing and anyone witnessing the laughter.
Mirror neurons were discovered while studying the brains of macaque monkeys in the early 1990s. It was observed that the neurons on the frontal cortex of the monkey activated when he reached for a peanut. It was also observed that the same neurons fired when he merely witnessed the researcher reaching for a peanut. After such a discovery, the research was extended to humans and similar results were found. Dossey states that researchers now assume that mirror neurons fire during empathetic reflection of facial expressions and emotions, mimicry and the acquisition of language. The author goes on to discuss the idea that laugher is contagious because of said empathetic reflection, a psychological premise that has been scientifically validated as a result of the discovery of mirror neurons. This may explain why and how people with a warm, genuine, voluminous laugh can get everybody around them to laugh just by laughing themselves with sincere enthusiasm.
Humor, in contrast with laughter, requires higher brain functions (right frontal cortex, medial ventral prefrontal cortex, the right and left posterior temporal regions and possibly the cerebellum). This is why a sense of humor is a psychological trait that can respond to different types of humorous stimuli and therefore varies considerably between ages, genders, cultures, etc.
We want to believe we’re rational, but the sad truth is that how we feel about something dictates what we choose to believe about it, regardless of what the facts are.
Until the late 19th Century, the prevailing attitude towards laughter was a negative one as if Proverb 17:22 was an error in the text: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Church dogma suggested laughter was detrimental to spiritual wellbeing, and many commonly considered it impolite and sinful.
Our relationship with laughter has changed tremendously over the course of the 20th Century, but old doubts have proven very resilient and we still have mixed feelings about it. Is it beneficial or childish? Is it therapeutic or trivial? Is it helpful or irrelevant?
My goal here is not to persuade you of anything, but rather to make you aware of what is available to you. Use it or ignore it. Either way this wonder medicine is built in inside of the human body and will always be there for you, patiently waiting.
A few laughter myths debunked
- Children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, and adults only 17.5
- It takes more muscles to frown than to smile
- One Minute Of Laughter Gives You The Same Benefits As 10 Minutes On A Rowing Machine
Is laughter the best medicine? Why not do your own laughter research?
Here is how I suggest you do it (what to do, what not to do, questionnaires to use to measure the impact, etc.)
First read the article “Laughter Yoga: The Trouble With Research
An easy test (if you have a blood pressure cuff and know how to use it) is to measure the impact on blood pressure.
Below are a few quantitative tests you could use to measure various psychological variables (click on each image to download.)
To all the scientists and researchers out there: Therapeutic approaches to laughter such as Laughter Wellness are versatile, reliable and easy to use. They do not rely on humor or comedy but rather on an internal decision to laugh. This kind of approach is not as reflexive nor highly variable as humor, and allows to work with a broader population and, therefore, unearth results of a higher quantity and quality. Contact us! We will be most happy to share how it works with you.
- 1 An acoustic analysis of laughter produced by congenitally deaf and normally hearing college students: http://lou.pm/deaf
- 2 Mora-Ripoll R, Ubal-López R. La risa: diferencias según género. Rev Clin Esp 2011; 211 (7): 360-366.
- 3 Wild, Rodden, Grodd, & Ruch, 2003
- 4 Advanced Educational Psychology in Ancient India: http://goo.gl/0SeUl
- 5 Read more about it at http://lou.pm/tickle
- 6 Neural correlates of laughter and humor Oxford Journal – Brain a Journal of Neurology doi: 10.1093/brain/awg226 – http://lou.pm/ncl.
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