Is Laughter Really the Best Medicine?

By Linda Rundare

Ok, so maybe it’s not the best medicine—but it’s up there. The health benefits of a good, deep belly laugh can’t be ignored, so we won’t. We’ll look at them up close so you can see why laughing should be a normal part of your everyday life.

The fascinating thing about laughter is that it seems to be the opposite of stress, which causes all manner of health problems because of its reputation for suppressing the immune system. So you see, laughing every day—not just once in a blue moon—is just as important for your health as a good diet and exercise.

Your Mind, Your Hormones, Your Immune System

Ever thought about these three things working together? Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University in California claims that the mind, hormones, and immune system are locked in a constant balancing act to produce your reactions to the world around you. Their communication with each other impacts many aspects of your daily life—including your mood and your ability to fend off sickness.

Consequently, this triad regulates release of stress hormones. For example, grief releases stress hormones, which in turn suppress your immune system, which opens your body to sickness. In your mind, you are thinking of the deceased person, which makes you feel sad; your hormones respond to the sadness with stress hormones; the stress hormones block the ability of the immune system to respond to germs. Whereas if you are able to laugh a few times during the funeral, laughter will halt the flow of stress hormones and calm you down for a moment. And why is that a good thing?

 The Basic Health Benefits

Dr. Berk, our professor in the previous section, states that the reason laughter improves your health is because it causes “all the reciprocal, or opposite, effects of stress.” Laughter literally triggers your hormones to stop releasing cortisol, a stress hormone. It then triggers the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and endorphins, both of which calm you down and lower your anxiety level. Since cortisol literally suppresses the immune system and contributes to weight gain, obesity, and diabetes, you can see why laughter would be an important, well, medicine.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Laughing also lowers blood pressure and improves cardiac health, actually boosts the immune system by activating T cells, and provides a quick ab workout. Once laughter turns off the flow of stress hormones, your stress level drops, and so does your heart rate. Laughing activates T cells, immune system cells that usually lie dormant, promoting immune function. And who doesn’t love the idea of working their ab muscles without going to the gym?

How We Laugh

Knowing that laughing could save you some health problems down the road, maybe it would be good to understand how laughing occurs. According to Harvard’s neuroscience institute, laughter is produced by three phases in the brain. First, we sense an incongruity (say, the punch line of a joke doesn’t fit with the joke’s setup). Then we try to solve the incongruity. In the last phase, we determine the sense of the joke and decide whether or not it’s funny. Ultimately, jokes (and other things we think are funny) work because they defy expectations. That’s why we initially laugh when someone trips—they were expected to walk normally down the sidewalk, but they unexpectedly stepped in a pothole and their steps faltered.

How to Laugh More

Now that you know you’ve got 3 phases to get to a laugh, a few tips on how to laugh more are in order. For one thing, laughing in a group is more powerful than when you’re alone. So find some funny people to hang out with, or at least bring a list of cheesy jokes to lunch at work next week. Research the kind of comedy you enjoy the most by watching different standup comics and comedy TV shows, and then save them to your DVR. You could even try subscribing to a YouTube channel with humorists who make you laugh.

There’s lots of material out there created just for the benefit of stressed out humans—why not take advantage of it? You’ll improve the health of your heart and boost your immune system while truly enjoying yourself. Laughter really is at least a helpful medicine, wouldn’t you say?