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Life Insurance > Love Life > Lifestyle > Laughter improves your health

Posted 09 March 2017

Is laughter really the best medicine? The real reasons laughing improves your health

Cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, from University College London, reveals the science behind why laughter makes us feel good.

  • Laughter could help you relax and reduce your stress.
  • Similar to exercise, laughter can give you an endorphin hit.
  • But laughter’s impact relies heavily on the circumstances.

Laughter reduces your stress levels

Creasing up can actually help lower your stress levels and make you feel more relaxed; this is because a real mirthful laugh drops your cortisol levels[1].

‘Cortisol is a very important hormone that cycles its levels throughout the day,’ explains Sophie. ‘It’s a stress hormone – when you’re stressed your cortisol levels go up.’

Your cortisol levels are often at their highest when you wake up in the morning – in fact, it’s one of the hormones that wakes you up[2]. Laughter some time before, even the day before, reduces your cortisol levels and, in turn, your stress levels.

‘The impact of laughter on stress is not a fast-acting thing; an amount of time after you have been laughing your cortisol levels reduce,’ says Sophie.

However, she points out that the impact laughter has on stress could be indirect.

‘We don’t know what the mechanism is, but your laughter could be a sign that you’re more relaxed,’ acknowledges Sophie. ‘The drop in cortisol could then be a by-product of your being more relaxed, which is why you’re laughing.’

Laughter reduces your adrenaline

Unlike cortisol, laughter’s impact on the adrenal hormone is immediate.

‘You get an immediate decrease in adrenaline with laughter,’ explains Sophie. ‘This is because adrenaline is quite a fast-acting hormone.’

However, Sophie points out that a fast reaction can be just as deceptive as a slow one.

‘Again, it’s an index of your becoming more relaxed,’ she says. ‘After all, we normally don’t laugh when we’re frightened!’

Laughter boosts your endorphins

As well as reducing some of your hormone levels, laughter actually boosts your endorphins.

‘When you laugh, you get an increase in the uptake of the naturally circulated endorphins, which are your body’s painkillers,’ says Sophie. ‘It’s the classic runner’s high, or feeling good after exercising – that’s an endorphin hit that you’re getting.’

But this could be because laughter, in a way, is exercise.

‘Even though you don’t do a vast amount of exercise when you’re laughing, you do move your ribcage much more than you do when you’re speaking or breathing,’ Sophie points out. ‘So the endorphins boost is possibly still a response to exercise – it may not be a specific result of laughter.’

Laughter increases your pain threshold

Like exercise, laughter can also increase your ability to withstand pain. Again, your endorphin level is the culprit.

‘When you’re exercising, your endorphin increase is a reaction to damage,’ says Sophie. ‘Your body’s trying to overcome some of the discomfort after exercise.

‘Robin Dunbar found that you get a measurable change in people’s pain threshold when they’ve been laughing,’ she continues.

But it doesn’t necessarily boost recovery

If you’re familiar with the Robin Williams classic Patch Adams, about the real-life doctor who dressed as a clown to help his patients, you may have already heard of the notion that laughter helps people’s health improve – but this is not necessarily the case.

‘We know that laughter has beneficial effects for people recovering from illness or injury. But that translated into showing patients funny films or doctors dressing up as clowns, rather than putting patients in situations where they might naturally laugh more – or encouraging them to laugh in the situations where they already feel comfortable,’ explains Sophie.

‘So the tendency is to sometimes focus too much on making patients laugh, and not think enough about what that laughter actually normally means – it exists in social circumstances, and those are good for you as well.’

Laughter’s benefits are down to context

So if you really want to feel the health benefits of laughter, surround yourself with the people who make you laugh.

‘You’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with someone than when you’re on your own,’ explains Sophie[3]. ‘What this does mean in practice? Are the hormone changes because of laughter or because you felt comfortable enough to laugh?’

On the other hand, isolating yourself from those people who are close to you can be damaging to your health.

‘Human beings evolved to interact with other people and laughter is a really important part of that,’ says Sophie. ‘We know that loneliness, i.e. taking people out of those interactions, is really bad for you – it’s a health risk.’[4]

So, although laughter might not be the best medicine, it’s a large part of something that, arguably, could be: social interactions. Surround yourself with those friends who make you laugh the loudest and you could well reduce your stress, feel more relaxed and improve your outlook on life.

Follow Sophie Scott (@sophiescott) on Twitter for more facts and news around the science behind sound, speech and laughter.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2556917

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167876008007940

[3] Robert Provine, Current Directions in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 6, pages 215-218)

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3633610/

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