Ah, yes — nothing like that feeling right after a good, long laugh. Now, no one would argue that laughter is a threat to our health, but does it actually improve it?
Whether you’re laughing at something silly (e.g., that funny cat video) or more intelligent material, laughter itself is actually part of a sophisticated physiological response to humor. So, biologically speaking, laughing actually does a whole lot more for the body than just making our cheeks hurt.
“The physical act of laughter sends more oxygen to the brain and releases endorphins, the feel-good chemical that reduces stress, relieves pain and elevates mood,” Dr. Katherine Puckett, director of mind-body medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago, tells SheKnows. This lessened stress, she notes, lowers blood pressure and can even support your immune system.
These benefits extend from your mind throughout your muscles as well. “The movement caused by laughter surely helps everyone take part in physical activity, with some tightening of the abdomen muscles and some light stretching,” Puckett explains.
Laughter as medicine
Puckett puts the science to practice on a daily basis, leading laughter-therapy sessions for cancer patients, which, as she puts it, “make the unbearable… bearable”. She does this by creatively introducing “laughter vocabulary” to patients, which consists of “hee-hees,” “ha-has” and “ho-hos.” During the session, Puckett walks patients through a variety of exercises that simulate these sounds, like singing the tune to “Happy Birthday” with laughter vocab or greeting each other solely with giggles. The result? Guaranteed hysterical laughing by everyone in the room.
“Patients not only feel uplifted, but they also feel connected with each other after the shared joyful experience,” Puckett explains.
And this connection with others is key. According to Feruze Zeko, a licensed mental health counselor, laughing is something that supports our social lives — which has scientifically proven links to your mental and physical health.
“Laughing shows the people around you that you are open and approachable,” Zeko told SheKnows. “It gives everyone insight into how you’re feeling and immediately makes them more comfortable in the way they continue to interact with you.”
The subject of laughter is rather personal to Zeko, as she grew up in a traditional and patriarchal Eastern European culture where humor and silliness were discouraged in the behaviors of women.
“Americans would look at my face and wonder why I was so angry, but I wasn’t angry at all,” Zeko remembers, explaining how her more serious demeanor was off-putting to her new friends and clients. Making a conscious effort to laugh more often helped her gain the trust of people around her and build long-lasting relationships.
“The brain works with rewards and reinforcements,” Zeko says. “When you’re laughing and smiling, people tend to respond more positively to you. This makes you feel better about your actions and makes you more likely to do it again — it is a reinforcement.”
And so, as laughter becomes more of a healthy habit for you, you’ll find yourself feeling more valued and supported within your social group — an absolute must when it comes to your well-being.
Where to get your laughter fill
Puckett’s unique therapy sessions are just one example of laughter treatments occurring around the world. A number of nursing homes hold laugh classes for their residents. Some organizations dispatch clowns to war zones and refugee camps. You can even attend laughter yoga at various fitness studios around the country. But unfortunately, we won’t always have access to organized laughing resources every time we’re feeling down. While it may seem a little kooky to simulate laughing vocabulary on your own, our experts shared ways we can — and should — keep the giggles nearby.
Puckett recommends developing your very own “laughter tool kit,” such as a file on your phone or computer with cartoons, jokes or headlines that always make you chuckle. If need be, she also suggests using a device — a pen, a straw or your finger — to physically hold a smile on your face.
“If you hold a smile for 30 to 60 seconds, your brain’s chemistry shifts,” Puckett adds. “Your brain is actually tricked into thinking that you’re happy.”
At the very least, you can simply try putting yourself in the mindset to laugh more often.
“Intentionally getting out of bed with a positive attitude sets a tone for the day,” Zeko says. “Things will bother you less, and you’ll be more inclined to laugh throughout the day.”
So, go ahead. Share those funny Facebook memes. Smile at your jerky coworker. Watch all eight seasons of The Office another time around. Doctor’s orders.