By Bahram Dideban, MD
From giggling throughout gatherings with family and friends to roaring with amusement during large-scale Hollywood blockbusters and comedy shows, laughter can (and should) make regular appearances in our lives — for many, many reasons.
There’s no denying that smirking, smiling, and full-on laughing can all induce positive emotions — clearly they make us feel good. But what does that positive energy really do for us? Is laughter really the best medicine? We took a closer look at the science behind snickering to solve the mystery.
Historically, research on laughter has not only been complicated and, at times, conflicting, but it has also been notoriously difficult to carry out — and remains so to this day, as it’s hard to separate and analyze one emotion from another. How do we measure laughter during an experiment? And how do we quantify it? Can researchers even know the results are due to laughter or happiness and not due to arousal, excitement, or some other confounding emotion instead?
Despite these troubles, some humour experiments have been successfully conducted in the last 60 years, and they each have an interesting result to share.
One of these unique experiments was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research and dates back to the Mad Men era of the 1960s. Scientists examined several bodily responses, such as stomach emptying time and blinking rate, of 10 children viewing a range of sad, frightening, and humourous scenes in the movie Bambi. The study showed a decrease in skin conductance and blinking rate during the saddest scenes and, interestingly, a decrease in gastric motility (i.e. slower stomach digestion) during the happiest ones. One interpretation of these results is that feeling happy may help keep you full longer by slowing down your stomach’s processes.
Two other researchers examined the physiological consequences of laughter over a longer timeframe and found that, while laughter temporarily increased adrenaline and the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system, it ultimately resulted in a net decrease in arousal but an improvement in mood lasting up to 45 minutes. Another older study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, examined a small group of female office clerks and also found evidence of increased adrenaline following humourous events. Results from this research showed that after viewing humourous or frightening films, the subjects had higher levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline present in their urine. In other words, a lighter, happier mood may help you train harder in the gym, although this effect wasn’t isolated to laughter alone, since frightening films also showed the urinary changes.
In order to strengthen humour studies, some scientists have instead shifted their research efforts to designing models we could use to conduct studies. One model, published in Current Directions in Health Psychology, points to four potential mechanisms, each involving a different aspect of humour, which could lead to better and more robust studies in the future. For now, take comfort in the fact that these four possible mechanisms are an excuse to add more Will Ferrell movies and knock-knock jokes to your life.
In the first theoretical mechanism, laughter might produce physiological changes in the body, which can lead to some impressive health benefits. Authors have suggested, for example, that vigorous laughter may exercise and relax muscles, improve respiration, stimulate circulation, and decrease stress-related hormones. Strangely enough, evidence has suggested that men experience an increase in blood pressure when laughing while women often show a decrease. Though they’re not entirely sure why, authors have speculated that these opposite reactions could be due to the different ways that men and women express humour, with women engaging in more tolerant, self-accepting, and adaptive forms that have the potential to lead to more beneficial effects.
Second, humour, smiling, or laughter may affect health by inducing positive emotional states, which could alter things like pain tolerance, recovery from illness, and coping with other psychosocial stressors. There is strong evidence, for example, that humourous events cause a moderate increase in pain tolerance. Using this model, overt laughter may not need to occur since simple humour and amusement may also trigger positive emotional outlooks.
Third, humour may affect health indirectly by reducing the adverse effects of stress, according to both experimental and correlational evidence. Individuals with a good sense of humour may cope more effectively with stressful situations and therefore curb some of the negative effects that stress could otherwise have on their bodies.
Finally, humour may directly increase a person’s level of social interaction, which in turn leads to stronger bonds, more satisfying relationships, and, ultimately, a more robust social support system. Although this model is less laughter-focused and more about the interpersonal connection of humour overall, it still suggests a positive impact for our bodies.
So what role does laughter really play in our lives? We still don’t fully know. But for now, spend some time joking with friends and family, watching feel-good Hollywood blockbusters, or catching a comedy show — not only will these activities make you laugh, but they may just give you a serious health boost and a daily dose of medicine you actually want to take!