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?
One large study, in Japan, researched 20,934 people aged over 65. It found those who reported laughing every day were less likely to experience heart disease than those who never or almost never laughed
A number of small studies have also suggested potential health benefits, for example that laughter may help:
- Reduce stress - in a study of 67 Taiwanese adolescents, half of whom followed a specially designed laughter programme. The results were reported in 2013.
- Improve learning ability and memory – as seen in a US study involving twenty participants, published in 2014. This compared how much learning ability improved after watching a humorous video compared with sitting calmly.
- Achieve improvements in memory, sociability and communication for people with mild dementia. That’s the conclusion from a very small study where 12 people with mild dementia observed and took part in stand up comedy.
- Improve the ability to tolerate pain - through the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood enhancers. This from a study published in 2012.
- Possibly reduce 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. 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 an agitated person may feel stirred up, excited, tense, confused or irritable.
- Improve mood and self-esteem, according to a short (three session) study with 62 cancer patients, reported in 2015.
- Improve quality of life for nursing home residents, in a Turkish study published in 2017, where 32 residents who received laughter therapy were compared with 33 who didn't.
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. A systematic review of the evidence, published in 2016, concluded that hospital clowns play a significant role in reducing stress and anxiety levels in children admitted to hospital, as well as their parents.
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, usually from 6 to 70 people, apart from the larger Australian and Japanese studies).
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.
Also, the studies so far don't tend to distinguish between laughter and humour and the presumed effects may come from the playful settings associated with these behaviours.
What happens when we laugh?
Laughter has a powerful effect on both our bodies and our minds. It affects our brain, our lungs, our heart, our muscles, our hormones and our immune system. 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 - in the incident quoted, the person had a racing heart syndrome.
- 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 usually seem to be many harmful side effects.
Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz, November 2017. Next review date October 2020.