Introduction

It’s a well-known fact that laughter is the best medicine, why? Because it’s contagious.

Laughter is universal, recognized by all cultures around the globe. Laughter not only improves our mental and physical health but increases the social bonds that tie us together as one. The science of laughter has proven that either a genuine laugh or a simulated laugh is one of the same.

Why Do People Laugh?

Humor, since the beginning of times, promotes healthy relationships among various societies. It’s an age-old medicine well-recognized, even in biblical times, and by ancient physicians.

Robert Provine, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, sites “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.”

In fact, Provine has shown that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with others, as opposed to being by ourselves. Laughter is a phenomenally useful way for people to come together and bond through similar emotions and share that bond of closeness.

A science reporter Tanya Lewis explains that the frontal lobe of our brain, which is responsible for our emotions and the left side, is responsible for interpreting words and structure of humor, determines whether something is funny or not.

Moreover, laughter causes the release of special chemicals in your brain that help you relax and feel good. Believe it or not, laughing is exercise: It makes you breathe deeply, uses your muscles, and is good for your heart and lungs. Scientists believe that it can help boost your immune system, which can ward off sickness, ease pain, and put you in a better mood.

The Science and Study Behind Laughter 

The first form of written laughter can be found in the Bible. The Bible reminds us about the benefits of laughter and happiness as: “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Book of Proverbs 17:22). Thus, awareness about the therapeutic effects of laughter dates back to the 10th century.

In fact, ancient Greek physicians prescribed distressed patients to visit the ‘Hall of Comedians’ to heal faster1. Later on, in the 14th Century, Henri de Mondeville, a French surgeon and author of Cyurgia, distracted his patients from the pain of surgery by using humor2. Robert Burton Martin Luther followed in the 16th Century.

In the 20th Century, William F. Fry, professor at Stanford University, developed a term gelotology ‘the study of laughter’3. Using a pulse oximeter, Fry investigated the change in body after a person has 3 minutes of continuous laughter. He observed that, it increased ventilation, improved muscle activity, enhanced minute volume, and created a feeling of exaltation to mobilize or remove the pulmonary secretions4.

Norman Cousins 5, a receiver of UN Peace Medal and 50 honorary doctorate degrees, investigated the healing power of laughter based on his personal 1964 recovery from a degenerative form of arthritis ‘ankylosing spondylitis’. He revealed that only about 10 minutes of laughter kept pain at bay for about two hours at night. Even morphine failed to assist, and the story inspired further research into laughter therapy.

In 1987, the American Association for Therapeutic Humor was found. In 1988, the International Society of Humor Society was established. They have successfully published thousands of articles on laughter as a therapy based on the research work of hundreds of professionals.

Dr. Lee S. Berk researched the impact of mirthful laughter on hormonal regulations. A good laugh increases the release of epinephrine and reduces that of cortisol. He found a link between laughter with a boost of epinephrine and antibodies production—the body’s inbuilt painkillers.

Among the Innovators are Dr. Annette Goodheart6, who specialized in laughter therapy during the 1960s. She improvised the idea by developing a theoretical framework of simulated laughter voluntarily. Many techniques were developed to provide patients relief from repressed or strong emotions. Her book, Laughter Therapy is an excellent read if you want to learn more about the importance of laughter.

Osho, an Indian spiritual preacher, introduced Mystic Rose Mediation, involving a 3-week practice of simulated smiles, tears, and silence7.

In the 1980s, Mari Cruz Garcia developed a whole new concept of ‘Conscious Laughter’. Following her, recently, in 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician, developed a Laughter Yoga, and coined the phrase: “Fake it until you make it.”

 

What Causes Laughter?

There are 7 reasons why you laugh:

  • Incongruity
  • Ambiguity
  • Relief
  • Anticipation
  • Exaggeration
  • Recognition
  • Protection

Research has also shown that the limbic system at the center of the brain8 – which contains the amygdala and hippocampus and processes our most basic emotions, such as hunger and fear, is also triggered when we see or hear something funny. This activity eventually stimulates the motor region of the brain to become active, hence, producing the physical reaction of laughing and the vocal expulsion of sound.

There are few sweeter sounds in this world than a baby’s laugh.  Babies laugh before they talk, which makes laughter one of the earliest clues to how we humans experience the world and this delicious sound just may serve as a powerful source of human communication and connection, as per psychology researcher Caspar Addyman.  I dare you not to laugh as you listen to this little one enjoying his daddy ripping paper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP4abiHdQpc

On average, humans laugh around 17 times a day. Researchers at the University of Maryland have determined that laughter is good for you.

They have linked laughter to the healthy function of blood vessels – something that can lower your chance of a heart attack.


What are the health benefits of laughter?

Physical Health: 

  • Regulates Blood Pressure and Promotes Heart Health: Laughter regulates high blood pressure levels and increases the heart rate. Laughter coupled with exercise is a perfect recipe to manage your blood pressure level. According to the Maryland School of Medicine study9, laughter causes the expansion of endothelium lining of blood vessels to increase blood flow, as opposed to high-stress levels can induce. Ultimately, it promotes heart health preventing blood clots.
  • Burns Calories: For bed-ridden people, laughter is a great way to positively impact bodily systems and improve the rate of metabolism10.
  • Relieves Pain: Laughter releases endorphins, the natural painkiller11. Moreover, the production of antibodies increases. Regular interval-based laughter assists in the management of chronic pain. In a rehabilitation hospital, as per a study of 35 patients, 74% agreed that laughing worked as good as a pain killer. The patients had a wide range of conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders, neurological disorders, arthritis, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury12.
  • Improves Immune Functions: The more you laugh, the more powerful it is on your diaphragm to pump for lymphatic circulations. It aids the lymphatic system to keep the body fluids clean for an improved immune system13.
  • Has an Effect on Diabetes: Geneticist Kazuo Murakami collaborated with stand-up comedians for medical benefits. His study revealed that the glucose level decreased with laughter. In another experiment, he found that laughter activated a total of 23 genes: 18 of them function for immune response and cell cycle, while the rest were unknown14.
  • Helps Cancer Patients: There are several cancer survivors claim to have benefited from the laughter therapy15. Not only did it reduced stress; it elevated the level of hope, contributing to more haemoglobins in blood.

Laughter and Mental Health:

  • Reduces Stress and Depression: According to Lee Berk, a significant reduction in blood pressure and release of stress hormones occur following a prolonged period of laughter. Laughter is a coping mechanism with stressful situations by promoting muscle relaxation and blood circulation. The energy-sapping emotions are substituted with revitalizing emotions16.
  • Clears the Thought Process: Laughter can interrupt the cycle of negativity and allows the people to communicate emotions better. With increased energy levels, you can stay more focused on your tasks.
  • Increased Fertility:   Researchers found that women who laughed for 15-minutes immediately after fertility treatment dramatically increased the chances of a successful pregnancy.  Shevach Friedler an infertility doctor with the Infertility and IVF unit at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, in Zrifin, Israel tracked 219 women undergoing IVF treatment at the medical center and found that after 15-minutes of laughter after their embryos were implanted, 36.4 percent of women became pregnant17.
  • Helps Treat Neurodegenerative Diseases: Laughter has been studied with patients with Dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The studies have shown that patients with fading memories benefited from laughter therapy to improve upon their mental health conditions18.
  • Promotes Learning: Humour improves learning and increases the chances of long-term memory. Researchers have worked to find the link between laughter and learning19.

Laughter and Social Health:

  • Improves Communication and Connection: Laughing together improves the strength of bond shared by people from different backgrounds. It fosters communication and cooperation and decreases competitive rivalry.
  • Improves Morale and Positive Approach:  Even in the workplace, employees have been known to be more productive and feel under less stress if humor is part of their daily routine. It’s proven that laughter can raise the morale of people in the workforce.

Why Do They Say Laughter Is the Best Medicine?

Sufficient clinical trials have validated the therapeutic effects of laughter. It reduces pain and can allow us to tolerate discomfort. Researchers believe that the primary function of laughter is to bring people together.

It is also possible that laughter boosts levels of nitric oxide within the artery walls, which is known to play a role in the dilation of the endothelium.

Laughing 15 minutes a day, is good, not just for the overall body, but for the vascular system, as well.

Why Is Laughter Contagious?

“Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone” is coined by American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919) in her poem “Solitude.”

As scientists have reported, laughter is contagious. The brain responds to sounds of laughter and automatically sends signals to release the feel-good drugs20.

Another reason for contagious laughter is that it is the first language to form social bonds among humans. Emotions are precursors of language. Mirroring behavior to interact socially is the most primal form of expression.

Why Do People Laugh When Tickled?

 

Tickling is moving the fingers lightly across the skin areas that are thin and highly sensitive. If someone tickles you, he/she stimulates the tiny sensitive nerve endings beneath the skin that sends messages to the cerebellum. The tickle activates two parts of the brain: one analyzing the amount of pressure, and the other governing pleasant feelings. Ultimately, you react to the unexpected yet pleasant touch.

Why can’t we tickle ourselves? Our touch isn’t unexpected for the brain; instead, it is coordinating all the moves. A quick response to tickle is, in fact, a defense mechanism. It alerts the mind more like an insect crawling across our body. Basically, a tickle can activate the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in survival-related roles since the beginning of time21.

Why Do Some People Laugh More Than Others?

Everyone laughs differently and at a different frequency. Laughter is a combined effort of your lungs, larynx, limbic system, respiratory muscles, and a lot of body muscles.

The reasons why we laugh, and what we laugh about, including the frequency of our laughter reveals a lot about our personality. In fact, each person has a different kind of laugh for different occasions. On formal occasions, a little giggle may suffice, while with a group of best friends, a loud and barreling, gut-wrenching, doubled over, uncontrollable expression of laugher may happen. How you laugh, dictates a lot about your personality.

Conclusion:

It may be difficult. But if you have the choice to laugh or cry, chose laughter. For one thing, you may inspire others to laugh, too.

 

References:

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25512827?dopt=Abstract
    2. https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/advan.00030.2017#B14
    3. https://commons.pacificu.edu/olaq/vol11/iss1/3/
    4. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1978-31097-001
    5. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/norman-cousins-a-laughterpain-case-study/
    6. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-therapy-annette-goodheart/
    7. http://web.archive.org/web/20140221011638/http://www.osho.com/highlights-of-oshos-world/mysticrose/
    8. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm
    9. http://web.archive.org/web/20140221003548/http:/umm.edu/news-and-events/news-releases/2005/school-of-medicine-study-shows-laughter-helps-blood-vessels-function-better
    10. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/funny-fitness/
    11. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-good-nervous-system/
    12. https://www.laughterremedy.com/article_pdfs/Laughter-A%20Prescription%20for%20Pain%20Reduction.pdf
    13. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-immune-system/
    14. http://web.archive.org/web/20140522224839/http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2006/01/12/1136956307785.html
    15. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-helps-cancer-prevention-recovery/
    16. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/how-to-manage-stress/
    17. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/ivf-pregnancies/
    18. https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-good-mental-health/
    19. https://physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/advan.00085.2016
    20. https://www.livescience.com/9430-study-laughter-contagious.html
    21. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315290.php#4