Is laughter good for our health?

Is laughter really the ‘best medicine’? We all feel better for laughing - but is there any evidence it can really improve our health?And if so, is this due to laughter itself or to something else?   

Are there really health benefits?  

Laughing may make us feel better and more able to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. However, is there any evidence it has actual health benefits?  

Small scale studies have suggested that laughter has a number of possible health benefits, including:  

  • Reducing stress - in a study of Taiwanese adolescents who followed a specially designed laughter programme. The results were reported in 2013. 
  • Improving learning ability and memory – as seen in a US study published in 2014. This compared how much learning ability improved after watching a humorous video compared with sitting calmly.  
  • Helping people with Type 2 Diabetes – according to a study published in 2009. Here the laughter appeared to enhance natural killer cell activity, important for the body’s immune system, and through this helped improve glucose tolerance.  
  • Possibly reducing depression in older women - according to a study in Iran published in 2011. The effect was achieved through laughter yoga. The same reduction in depression was also achieved through exercise therapy, incidentally.  

NB A larger study in Australia, published in 2013, also with older people, didn’t find a significant reduction in depression. However, it did find that agitation was significantly reduced.   

Medline Plus explains that agitation is an unpleasant state of extreme arousal and that an agitated person may feel stirred up, excited, tense, confused or irritable. 

Findings like these have even led to a new field of research, gelotology (the study of laughter). And hospitals in the US, Europe and Australia have all recognised the benefits to patient health from having medical clowns in the hospital, in particular in paediatric wards, - and now increasingly, for patients with dementia too.

Too good to be true? 

A number of questions have been raised about studies like these. For example: 

The number of people taking part in these studies is usually small (in the examples above from 6 to 70 people, apart from the larger Australian study).  

As we’ll see below, laughter is much more likely in social situations than when we’re on our own, so it may be that it is being sociable that is producing the health benefit. We know that, conversely, feeling lonely is bad for both our health and longevity 

What happens when we laugh? 

Laughter has a powerful effect on both our bodies and our minds. It affects our brain, our lungs, our eyes, our heart, our muscles, our hormones and our emotions.  That makes it potentially quite a powerful combination and may help explain some of its potential health effects.  

Can we laugh alone? 

Laughter is part of the way we bond with each other. Research suggests that we are less likely to laugh when we are on our own. In the example here students were 30 times more likely to laugh in social situations than when alone. 

In fact researchers believe that laughter is more a response to social situations than a response to particularly funny comments.   

However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh on our own. Hearing/seeing laughter on the radio and television has been shown to trigger laughter, which may offer the same health benefits. For example it was discovered in 1950 (on the television show, The Hank McCune Show) that canned laughter made audiences laugh more.  

Can laughter be bad for you? 

Laughing too much can be dangerous, under certain circumstances. Researchers looked at studies from 1946 to 2013. They found that, alongside the many reported benefits, were occasional dangers. These included asthma attacks, headaches, jaw dislocation, cardiac rupture and in rare cases, death - inthe incident quoted, the person had a racing heart syndrome. 

Conclusions  

  • Laughter may not be the ‘best medicine’- but overall it seems to do our health more good than harm.  
  • Whether this is through the changes laughter induces in our body or through the social situations we’re usually in when we laugh (or both) is still being debated. 
  • The best way of using laughter to keep you healthy seems to be by being sociable  - staying connected with friends and family to increase your exposure to situations where there are opportunities to laugh.  
  • Other options include watching and listen to comedy, joining a laughter based exercise or yoga class and making time for fun activities. 
  • The only caution is probably not to laugh so much you risk doing yourself an injury. Other than that there don’t seem to be many harmful side effects. 

Published 07/07/2011. Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz, December 2014. Published January 2015. Next review date December 2017. 

Laughter