An expert shares the science behind the benefits of laughter.
Published on: 08-01-2019
When I started my career in health care, I used to emphasize the importance of the physical factors of health. As my career and knowledge matured, I spent more time learning how factors such as lifestyle, diet, gratitude, spirituality, attitude, and forgiveness also play roles in health and disease outcomes.
My idea to study laughter was also inspired by the Bible. Proverbs 17:22 states, “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” This refers to the integrative medical science of psychoneuroimmunology being stated in biblical terms. This was the starting point, and is the core of whole-person care of mind, body, and spirit.
Just as people with depression have a higher propensity to have a compromised immune system, my research came to show that people who experience joyful laughter have biological translations and can influence positive responses of the immune system.
The subject was first introduced when a man named Norman Cousins was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in the 1960s. He was editor of Saturday Review, and he had a life of massive stress and distress, so he hypothesized that he would need to produce good stress—eustress—to see if he could reverse this prognosis.
I first met Cousins in 1989 when he came to Loma Linda to ask me if there were any known physiological benefits from laughter. We discovered that when people laugh, the hormone system benefits, because laughter prompts good stress (eustress) and decreases bad stress (distress). The reality of wholeness is that each body process has a biological consequence, whether for better or worse. Just as stress can suppress our immune systems and lead to sickness, laughter can have the opposite effect by improving and optimizing immune system components and blood flow, so we are more “sickness” resistant.
Laughter causes the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller; serotonin, our natural anti-depressant; and good neuropeptides, chemical communicators. It also decreases cortisol, which then reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, increases oxygen intake, enhances the immune system, and reduces the risk of having heart disease or a stroke. In health care we often compartmentalize different specialties. We have physiology, biochemistry, endocrinology, and neurology all taught separately. But when we look at the whole person, we can see how interconnected the human body really is.
Laughter also triggers the production of key neurochemicals, such as dopamine, which produce calming, antianxiety benefits, as well as providing us pleasure and reward. It also increases EEG gamma wave frequency in the brain, which synchronizes brain neurons to help improve our memory and cognitive processing. Laughter has similar benefits as moderate exercise. It also increases the brain’s gamma wave frequency.
Gamma frequency is the highest frequency and is responsible for addressing information processing, improved memory, and stress reduction. We now know in neuroscience that gamma frequency enhances the brain’s cognitive levels.
The duration of the laugh is not as important as the reason behind it. Mirthful laughter, as opposed to nervous or embarrassed laughter, promotes the good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and has a cascade of beneficial physiological changes conducive for happiness—happiness being dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. Happiness is the optimal immune system responsivity. Laugh as often and as much as you need until you feel good!
Norman Cousins once wrote, “Of all the gifts bestowed by nature on human beings, hearty laughter must be close to the top.” This gift, of both joy and healing, is something that can bring us together and allow us to experience the happiness God longs for us to experience.