The Health Benefits of Humor and Laughter
Sure, it’s fun to share a good laugh. But did you know it can actually improve your health? It’s true: laughter is strong medicine. It draws people together in ways that trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. As children, we used to laugh hundreds of times a day, but as adults life tends to be more severe and laughter more infrequent. By seeking out more opportunities for humour and laughter, though, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life.
Why is laughter the sweetest medicine for mind and body?
Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain, and conflict. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humour lightens your burdens, inspires hopes, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you to release anger and be more forgiving.
With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use.
Laughter is good for your health
Laughter relaxes the whole body. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.
Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
Laughter protects the heart. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.
Laughter burns calories. OK, so it’s no replacement for going to the gym, but one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn about 40 calories—which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.
Laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment.
Laughter may even help you to live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humour outlived those who don't laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer.
Physical health benefits of laughter
- Boosts immunity
- Lowers stress hormones
- Decreases pain
- Relaxes your muscles
- Prevents heart disease
Mental health benefits of laughter
- Adds joy and zest to life
- Eases anxiety and tension
- Relieves stress
- Improves mood
- Strengthens resilience
Social benefits of laughter
- Strengthens relationships
- Attracts others to us
- Enhances teamwork
- Helps defuse conflict
- Promotes group bonding
Laughter helps you stay mentally healthy
Laughter makes you feel good. And the good feeling that you get when you laugh remains with you even after the laughter subsides. Humour helps you keep a positive, optimistic outlook through stressful situations, disappointments, and loss.
More than just a respite from sadness and pain, laughter gives you the courage and strength to find new sources of meaning and hope. Even in the most difficult of times, a laugh–or even merely a smile–can go a long way toward making you feel better. And laughter really is contagious—just hearing laughter primes your brain and readies you to smile and join in the fun.
The link between laughter and mental health
- Laughter stops distressing emotions. You can’t feel anxious, angry, or sad when you’re laughing.
- Laughter helps you relax and recharge. It reduces stress and increases energy, enabling you to stay focused and accomplish more.
- Laughter shifts perspective, allowing you to see situations in a more realistic, less threatening light. A humorous perspective creates psychological distance, which can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and diffuse conflict.
- Laughter draws you closer to others, which can have a profound effect on all aspects of your mental and emotional health.
Laughter brings people together and strengthens relationships
There’s a good reason why TV sitcoms use laugh tracks: laughter is contagious. You’re many times more likely to laugh around other people than when you’re alone. And the more laughter you bring into your own life, the happier you and those around you will feel.
Sharing humour is half the fun—in fact, most laughter doesn’t come from hearing jokes, but instead from merely spending time with friends and family. And it’s this social aspect that plays such an essential role in the health benefits of laughter. You can’t enjoy a laugh with other people unless you take the time to engage with them really. When you care about someone enough to switch off your phone and really connect face to face, you’re engaging in a process that rebalances the nervous system and puts the brakes on defensive stress responses like “fight or flight.” And if you share a laugh as well, you’ll both feel happier, more positive, and more relaxed—even if you’re unable to alter the stressful situation itself.
How laughing together can strengthen relationships
Shared laughter is one of the most useful tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter also adds joy, vitality, and resilience. And humour is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. Laughter unites people during difficult times.
Humour and playful communication strengthen our relationships by triggering positive feelings and fostering an emotional connection. When we laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a healthy buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment. Using humour and laughter in relationships allows you to:
Be more spontaneous. Humour gets you out of your head and away from your troubles.
Let go of defensiveness. Laughter helps you forget resentments, judgments, criticisms, and doubts.
Release inhibitions. Your fear of holding back and holding on is set aside.
Express your true feelings. Deeply felt emotions are allowed to rise to the surface.
Use humour to resolve disagreements and tension in your relationship
Laughter is an extraordinarily powerful tool for managing conflict and reducing tension when emotions are running high. Whether with romantic partners, friends and family, or co-workers, you can learn to use humour to smooth over disagreements, lower everyone's stress level, and communicate in a way that builds up your relationships rather than breaking them down.
How to bring more laughter into your life
Laughter is your birthright, a natural part of life that is innate and inborn. Infants begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within months of being born. Even if you did not grow up in a household where laughter was a familiar sound, you could learn to laugh at any stage of life.
Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humour and laughter, as you might with working out, and build from there. Eventually, you’ll want to incorporate humour and laughter into the fabric of your life, finding it naturally in everything you do.
Here are some ways to start:
- Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter, and like laughter, it’s contagious. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling. Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with. Notice the effect this has on others.
- Count your blessings. Literally, make a list. The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humour and laughter. When you’re in a state of sadness, you have further to travel to get to humour and laughter.
- When you hear laughter, move toward it. Sometimes humour and laughter are private, a shared joke among a small group, but usually not. More often, people are thrilled to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humour you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”
- Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humour in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious. Even if you don’t consider yourself a lighthearted, humorous person, you can still seek out people who like to laugh and make others laugh. Every comedian appreciates an audience.
- Bring humour into conversations. Ask people, “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?”
So, what do you do if you really can’t “find the funny”? Believe it or not, it’s possible to laugh without experiencing a funny event—and simulated laughter can be just as good for you as the real thing. It can even make exercise more fun and more productive. A Georgia State University study found that incorporating bouts of simulated laughter into an exercise program helped improve older adults’ mental health as well as their aerobic endurance. Plus, hearing others laugh, even for no apparent reason, can often trigger genuine laughter.
To add simulated laughter into your own life, search for laugh yoga or laugh therapy groups. Or you can start just by laughing at other people’s jokes, even if you don’t find them funny. It will make both you and the other person feel good, draw you closer together, and who knows, may even lead to some spontaneous laughter.
Creating opportunities to laugh:
- Watch a funny movie, TV show, or YouTube video
- Invite friends or co-workers to go to a comedy club
- Read the funny pages
- Seek out funny people
- Share a good joke or a funny story
- Check out your bookstore’s humour section
- Host game night with friends
- Play with a pet
- Go to a “laughter yoga” class
- Goof around with children
- Do something silly
- Make time for fun activities (e.g. bowling, miniature golfing, karaoke)
- Tips for developing your sense of humour
An essential ingredient for developing your sense of humour is to learn not to take yourself too seriously and laugh at your own mistakes and foibles. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we all do foolish things from time to time. Instead of feeling embarrassed or defensive, embrace your imperfections. While some events in life are undoubtedly sad and not opportunities for laughter, most don’t carry an overwhelming sense of either sadness or delight. They fall into the grey zone of ordinary life—giving you a choice to laugh or not. So choose to laugh whenever you can.
How to develop your sense of humour
Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take yourself less seriously is to talk about times when you took yourself too seriously.
Attempt to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them. Look for the humour in a dangerous situation, and uncover the irony and absurdity of life. When something negative happens, try to find a way to make it a humorous anecdote that will make others laugh.
Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up. Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your family or friends having fun.
Remember funny things that happen. If something amusing happens or you hear a joke or funny story you really like, write it down or tell it to someone else to help you remember it.
Don’t dwell on the negative. Try to avoid negative people and don’t dwell on news stories, entertainment, or conversations that make you sad or unhappy. Many things in life are beyond your control—particularly the behaviour of other people. While you might think about taking the weight of the world on your shoulders is admirable, in the long run, it’s unrealistic and unhealthy.
Find your inner child. Pay attention to children and try to emulate them—after all, they are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing at ordinary things.
Deal with stress. Stress can be a significant impediment to humour and laughter, so it's essential to get your stress levels in check. One great technique to relieve stress at the moment is to draw upon a favourite memory that always makes you smile—something your kids did, for example, or something funny a friend told you.
Don’t go a day without laughing. Think of it like exercise or breakfast and make a conscious effort to find something each day that makes you laugh. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes and do something that amuses you. The more you get used to laughing each day, the less effort you’ll have to make.
Using humour to overcome challenges and enhance your life
The ability to laugh, play, and have fun with others not only makes life more enjoyable but also helps you solve problems, connect with others, and be more creative. People who incorporate humour and play into their daily lives find that it renews them and all of their relationships.
Life brings challenges that can either get the best of you or become playthings for your imagination. When you “become the problem” and take yourself too seriously, it can be hard to think outside the box and find new solutions. But when you play with the problem, you can often transform it into an opportunity for creative learning.
Playing with problems seems to come naturally to children. When they are confused or afraid, they make their problems into a game, giving them a sense of control and an opportunity to experiment with new solutions. Interacting with others in playful ways helps you retain this creative ability.
Here are two examples of people who took everyday problems and turned them around through laughter and play:
Roy, a semi-retired businessman, was excited to finally have time to devote to golf, his favourite sport. But the more he played, the less he enjoyed himself. Although his game had improved dramatically, he got angry with himself for every mistake. Roy wisely realised that his golfing buddies affected his attitude, so he stopped playing with people who took the game too seriously. When he played with friends who focused more on having fun than on their scores, he was less critical of himself. Now golfing was as enjoyable as Roy hoped it would be. He scored better without working harder. And the brighter outlook he was getting from his companions and the game spread to other parts of his life.
Jane worked at home designing greeting cards, a job she used to love but now felt had become routine. Two little girls who loved to draw and paint lived next door. Eventually, Jane invited the girls in to play with all the art supplies she had. At first, she just watched, but in time she joined in. Laughing, colouring, and playing pretend with the little girls transformed Jane’s life. Not only did playing with them end her loneliness and boredom, it sparked her imagination and helped her artwork flourish. Best of all, it rekindled the playfulness and spark in Jane’s relationship with her husband.
As laughter, humour, and play become an integrated part of your life, your creativity will flourish and new opportunities for laughing with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and loved ones will occur to you daily. Laughter takes you to a higher place where you can view the world from a more relaxed, confident, and joyful perspective.
Resources and references
Laughter Therapy – Guide to the healing power of laughter, including the research supporting laughter therapy. (Cancer Treatment Centers of America)
Laugh Lots, Live Longer – Details Norwegian study that found having a strong sense of humor may extend life expectancy. (Scientific American Mind)
Laughter-Based Exercise Program for Older Adults has Health Benefits – Research that shows the health benefits of simulated laughter. (Georgia State University)
No joke: Study finds laughing can burn calories – Outlines a small study that found laughing raises energy expenditure and increases heart rate enough to burn a small amount of calories. (Vanderbilt University Medical Center)
The Benefits of Laughter – Article on the social benefits of laughter and the important role it plays in the relationships between people. (Psychology Today)
The Science of Laughter – Psychologist and laughter researcher Robert Provine, Ph.D., explains the power of laughter, humor, and play as social tools. (Psychology Today)
Humor in the Workplace – Series of articles on using humor in the workplace to reduce job stress, improve morale, boost productivity and creativity, and improve communication. (Laughter Remedy)
Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: March 2018.