Laughter’s ability to heal is something of an old wives tale, which has been observed throughout the ages. Whilst Lord Byron claimed “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” everyone, from Charlie Chaplin to Nietzsche, seems to recognise laughter as a powerful antidote to various physical (and existential) maladies. Science finally seems to be catching up to this wisdom, through various studies which highlight the very real benefits laughter can have on our wellbeing. We wanted to investigate laughter’s alleged healing properties, and figure out how, if it is so good, we can laugh more often?
Get your play face on
What makes us laugh may be completely different across cultures, age ranges, and even genders, yet laughter itself is a central and significant part of the human experience, no matter who you are. Whilst we know laughter makes life much more enjoyable, its origins in human behaviour are somewhat unknown (and even unknowable). Most theories point towards laughter emerging out of play as a form of primate bonding, as evidence shows laughter fosters greater human connection .
According to the Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar laughter presents us with a kind of “play face”  - a submissive open-mouth-covered-teeth-look that signals a desire to play. Fast forward a few thousand years and today we can spend a good few hours laughing at cats on the internet as much as we can from tickle fights with our kids. Whilst we all know laughing feels good, what is lesser-known are the ways in which it actually does good for our minds and bodies:
Laughing relaxes our bodies (and our minds)
It’s unsurprising that laughter helps to relieve stress, because, well, when we laugh we feel much less stressed. What’s more interesting still, is that laughter physically alters our bodies, by stimulating circulation, and aiding muscle relaxation. The impact being, that it can help to soothe the stress we might store in our bodies. Laughing can help us to discharge feelings, like nervousness and anxiety, as Professor of Psychology Margaret Clark has observed, thereby enabling us to feel more relaxed in our minds, as well as our bodies . So awkward laughter at our boss’s bad jokes may actually be doing wonders for our wellbeing.
Having a sense of humour could save your life
One Norwegian study from 2016 showed that people with a sense of humour lived longer, despite illness. This was particularly true for women, even in cases of cancer, heart disease and infectious diseases. The study’s co-author Sven Svebak (great name) believes that this is in part due to the way laughter inhibits the escalation of stress hormones, which wreak havoc on our immune system . More laughter = significantly improved health, which ironically is no laughing matter.
Laughter forges greater human connections
In keeping with theories about how we developed the capacity to laugh, laughing with others is shown to improve our social bonds. Research has shown that the endorphins that are released through laughing are said to create a neurochemical pathway that supports the nurturing of long-term human relationships . This is significant from a wellbeing perspective because strong social connections are foundational to our health and wellbeing (you can read more about this here). It makes sense then that we want a partner/s who can make us laugh - now where’s the dating profile filter for ‘funny’?
Laughter can be a great aerobic exercise
Have you had a good belly laugh lately? A proper belly laugh exercises the diaphragm, contracts the abs and even works out the shoulders, leaving muscles more relaxed afterwards. When we laugh, our heart rate increases and we take many deep breaths. This means that more oxygenated blood is circulated through the body – improving our vascular (heart) function. If you find exercise a bit of a chore try vigorous laughing to get that fit feeling.
How can we laugh more?
So laughing more is pretty good for us, but finding things to laugh about in the face of a global pandemic may feel somewhat impossible at the moment (particularly when we’re deprived of the ticklish touch laughing developed in response to). Whilst research shows that we are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group compared to being by ourselves , we don’t necessarily have to wait for social occasions to soak up all of laughters benefits. If you’re hungry for ha ha ha’s, try out some of these methods:
1. Surround yourself with funny (especially on your own)
In this instance, the internet is our friend - particularly after the surge of surreal, cerebral and downright daft content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Even though we’re much more likely to laugh with others, than on our own - Psychologist Paul McGhee believes that surrounding ourselves with humour is an important tool for increasing the likelihood of laughter and guarding against stress .
2. Find the funny in the humdrum
McGhee also encourages people to look for humour in the humdrum of our everyday lives. By seeking the humour out in situations that are at best boring, or worse, distressing - we can cultivate the capacity to laugh more freely throughout our lives. As Charlie Chaplin famously said:
“To truly laugh you must be able to take your pain and play with it”.
So next time it feels like the world’s working against you, do like Charlie and see if you can frame it in a funny light.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it
Whilst forcing emotional responses is known to have a negative effect on our wellbeing  (think smiling on the outside whilst raging inside Betty Draper style), there may be some merit to trying to laugh even when you don’t feel like it. The rationale being, that you can somewhat trick your body into reaping the benefits of laughter, by simulating laughter, even if nothing has really tickled your funny bone. These are the mechanics at play behind laughter yoga. Similar to its organic cousin - laughter, laughter yoga is increasingly recognised as a powerful method of managing stress and increasing our sense of connection.
More laughter please: laughter is good for us, especially a big ol’ belly laugh. What tickles your funny bone? Let’s seek out occasions throughout our day to laugh more. Happy laughing!
When Sharing a Laugh Means Sharing More: Testing the Role of Shared Laughter on Short-Term Interpersonal Consequences (2017). Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour.
Facilitating play through communication: significance of teeth exposure in the gorilla play face (2012). American Journal of Primatology.
Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli (2015). Association for Psychological Science.
A 15-Year Follow-Up Study of Sense of Humor and Causes of Mortality: The Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (2016). Psychosomatic Medicine.
Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans (2017). The Journal of Neuroscience.
Laughing, Smiling, and Talking: Relation to Sleeping and Social Context in Humans. (2016) International Journal of behavioural biology.
Humour as survival training for a stressed-out world (2010).
Emotion Regulation and Mental Health (1995). Clinical Psychology and science practice.
The impact of laughter yoga on subjective well-being: A pilot study (2014). European Journal of Humour Research.