When you stop and think about it, the sounds people make when something strikes their funny bone are kind of odd; maybe even bizarre. But the whoops and snorts that sometimes constitute a spontaneous explosion of mirth is a science, researchers say.
There are reasons for a good belly laugh that psychologists believe involve far more than a simple side effect for amusement.
Another question besides why we laugh is, why does laughing until you hurt feel so good? One reason is because it’s inherently physical. Terms like “convulsed” and “doubled over” with hilarity or “splitting one’s sides” denote intense engagement that involves both your body and mind.
There are many reasons why we laugh. Some of those are odd, too. People sometimes break into giggles in uncomfortable situations, for instance. They can’t help it. Maybe they think it fills uncomfortable silence, or they want to mask embarrassment in an awkward situation, such as walking into the wrong restroom.
Writer Sam Thomas Davies says, “A nervous laugh is often a physiological release of negative emotions like anxiety, confusion, discomfort or stress a person feels in a social situation.”1 It’s a habit that, rather than relieving anxiety, actually heightens it.
The Healthy Side of Busting a Gut
Laughing can trigger short-term as well as long-term positive effects in your body. You could also say there are physiological reasons why a good guffaw is good for you. It:
- Stimulates your organs by forcing you to inhale more oxygen than when you’re just breathing, which automatically works your lungs and heart muscles.
- Increases your endorphins, the “feel good” brain chemicals that flood your whole body with a feeling of lightness — sometimes even weakness.
- Revs up your circulation and helps your blood vessels work better.2
- Gives you a psychological “bazinkle” to reduce your anxiety level and help you relax
Just as “negative internal dialogue” can surge through your entire system and even open the door for free radicals to damage your cells, the opposite happens when you let hilarity take its natural course. Your laughter boosts your immune system.
When you laugh, neuropeptides are released that help combat stress, and potentially, disease. Mayo Clinic asserts that it:
“Activate(s) and relieve(s) your stress response. A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.”3
As for the long-term benefits to laughter, it seems simplistic to say that laughing helps get you in a better mood, but it does. Laughing about a stressful or difficult situation not only can help you cope better, but will help you connect on a more “real” level with others.
The Socially Scientific Aspects of Laughter
Research shows that you’re 30 times more likely to laugh in a social setting than when you’re by yourself.4
You’d think the most obvious reason for laughing would be because we think something’s funny. But, WebMD recounts, a study in the Quarterly Review of Biology says “not so:”
“The primary function of laughter may not be self-expression. Instead, the purpose of a laugh could be to trigger positive feelings in other people. When you laugh, the people around you might start laughing in response.
Soon, the whole group is cheerful and relaxed. Laughter can ease tension and foster a sense of group unity. This could have been particularly important for small groups of early humans.”5
The very act of laughing is a scientific study in culturalism. Laughter is usually socially motivated. Maybe we don’t find something particularly funny, but other peoples’ laughter might be. Here’s one reason why, a BBC article noted:
We laugh most frequently when we are with other people … It’s a social emotion and we use it to make and maintain social bonds.
We also make very strange noises when we laugh — from wheezes and squeaks to gasps and snorts — and each sound simply reflects the muscles in the chest squeezing out air from our ribcages under very high pressures.6
One interesting thing about what makes us laugh is that it’s often universal; the same things crack us up. Further, laughter is a very recognizable sound. When someone who speaks a completely different language finds something amusing and laughs, we know what it means.
Laughing Helps You Learn and Boosts Dopamine
Psychology Today says laughter helps facilitate your capacity to learn new things.7 Especially for children, that’s why laughter is such an important part of their play. It actually helps them learn new skills as they engage in playful activities.
More importantly, laughter helps ensure they’re in an emotionally healthy and safe environment.
Researchers conducted an experiment on babies, some only 18 months old, to determine whether laughter would help focus attention, motivate, perceive, memorize and learn. The conclusion: The babies who laughed learned to target actions better.
Study leader Rana Esseily theorized the reason to be dopamine release.
Other scientists have used the knowledge of what dopamine can do for you to set forth the hypothesis that laughter, as a natural high, is better than a chemical high, say in pushing the assertion why young people should say “no” to drugs.8
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control your brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Some call it the motivation molecule that gives you a little thrill when you accomplish something. And, it encourages laughter. Without it, there’s actually something called dopamine deficiency.
You’ve seen it many times in others, and no doubt experienced it yourself: a sluggish sort of apathy that results in everything from inability to concentrate to trouble sleeping to lack of sexual drive.
But scientists say you can boost your dopamine without being a thrill seeker. It can be increased through choosing healthy foods such as avocados, dark chocolate and green tea, and healthy spices such as turmeric and black pepper.9 Listening to music can do it. In fact, even anticipating listening to music can do it.10
In fact, dopamine can help you relax, and relaxing can open your mind to seeing the humor in things. It’s very healthy.
Of course, scientists had to take MRI images of someone laughing to see what laughter actually stimulates. It turns out that laughing doesn’t really involve peoples’ mouths or throats, but rather their ribcages, and emerges as one of the most primitive ways humans can emit sound. BBC adds:
“Laughter is a non-verbal emotional expression and these sounds, which we typically make when in the grip of quite strong emotions, are more like animal calls than they are like our normal speech.
We make them in very simple ways (unlike speech) and they are controlled by an evolutionarily ‘older’ brain system, one that looks after vocali[z]ation in all mammals (unlike speech).
This is why a stroke can rob someone of the ability to speak, but leave them able to laugh and cry. They have suffered damage to the brain areas that enable them to speak, but the older emotional system is still intact.”
A Chortle a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Amazingly, your laughter can benefit people who happen to hear you yukking it up. Scientists at Loma Linda University conducted a study to see if laughter can do more than just make someone feel good for a few minutes.11
Twenty healthy adults in their 60s and 70s agreed to participate in the experiment that would measure their short term memory and stress levels, The Huffington Post reported.12
Divided in half, one group got to watch funny videos. The other group was asked to sit quietly without talking or interacting with each other, with no books, television or cell phones.
Twenty minutes later, members of both groups had saliva taken and underwent a short memory test. While both groups performed better than they had before the tests began, the faction that watched the funny videos had “significantly” better results. The improvement related to a 43.6 percent better recall, compared with just 20.3 in the other no-activity group.
Furthermore, participants in the “funny” group had much lower levels of cortisol, called the “stress hormone.” Multiple other studies have determined that laughter is good medicine.
Learn to Laugh; It Starves the Pain
Scientists — or maybe it’s humorists — believe a good sense of humor can be developed with the proper perspective. A few simple exercises are recommended:
- Don’t take things too seriously — especially yourself. Learn to laugh at yourself, and soon, it will become your knee-jerk way to handle stress. Alternatives are anger, depression or embarrassment. Laughter is so much more fun, not to mention healthier.
- Spend more time with people who make you laugh, and aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves. Lack of laughter with too many people in your life busts your funny bone. Join a book reading club, take a yoga class or learn to bowl. You’ll find like-minded people who love laughter, because they love life.
- Never make others part of your laughter therapy. Discerning what’s appropriately funny will never include making someone else feel bad.
One of the not-yet-discussed, long-term benefits you get from laughter also includes pain relief, simply because pain thresholds rise when endorphin levels increase. According to Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University:
“Laughter is definitely some of the best medicine for pain. It seems that endorphins tune up the immune system, so triggering their release through laughter helps you recover from disease and allows the body to resist infection.
Would some comic relief help those suffering from chronic pain? Presumably, the more you engage in social events that involve laughter, you’ll be better able to bear chronic pain. No doubt the pharmaceutical companies won’t like it, but laughter would save on hospital bills.” 13
- 1 Sam Thomas Davies 2016
- 2 University of Maryland Medical Center March 7, 2005
- 3 Mayo Clinic 1998-2016
- 4 The Body Odd November 18, 2012
- 5 WebMD 2005-2016
- 6 BBC News September 11, 2016
- 7 Psychology Today Jan. 26, 2016
- 8 Psychology Today November 21, 2011
- 9 Be Brain Fit 2012-2016
- 10 Nature Science January 9, 2011
- 11 Adv Mind Body Med. 2014 Spring;28(2):16-24
- 12 Huffington Post April 22, 2014
- 13 The Royal Society September 14, 2011
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About the Author:
Born and raised in the inner city of Chicago, IL, Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician trained in both traditional and natural medicine. Board-certified in family medicine, Dr. Mercola served as the chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center for five years, and in 2012 was granted fellowship status by the American College of Nutrition (ACN).
While in practice in the late 80s, Dr. Mercola realized the drugs he was prescribing to chronically ill patients were not working. By the early 90s, he began exploring the world of natural medicine, and soon changed the way he practiced medicine.
In 1997 Dr. Mercola founded http://www.Mercola.com, which is now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the internet. His passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States. “The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans… You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.”