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11 Scientific Benefits of Having a Laugh

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They say that laughter is "the best medicine," and as it turns out, there is some scientific truth to this assertion. Humor-associated laughter has numerous health benefits, so here are 11 reasons you should laugh it up.

1. LAUGHTER IS A SIGN OF GOOD WILL TOWARD OTHERS.

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Laughter may be unique to humans. Why do we do it? According to a 2010 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, laughter and smiling are generally intended as a message of good will. The authors extrapolate that there is a similar function in primates, who use facial expressions with bared teeth to suggest friendliness and sociability. They write, "Because some forms of smiling are voluntary and easily faked, laughter, which requires a more synergetic contraction of the wider musculature, is believed to have evolved in humans to express a secure, safe message to others."

2. IT MAY REDUCE YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE.

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High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most dangerous side effects of stress, as well as a huge risk factor for heart disease and stroke. However, it's hard to be stressed when you're laughing, so researchers have investigated whether laughter can bring blood pressure down. There are more than a few studies that show a reduction of blood pressure after laughter, such as a 2017 study in the Journal of Dental and Medical Research, where 40 patients undergoing hemodialysis listened to CDs of comic shows for 16 30-minute sessions over eight weeks, and saw a decrease in blood pressure.

In 2011 researchers presented results of a three-month-long study at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions. Researchers exposed 79 participants to either a music or laughter therapy. Laughter was stimulated through "playful eye contact" and breathing exercises. Immediately after sessions, the blood pressure readings from the laughers lowered by 7 mmHg—(millimeters of mercury, how the blood pressure readings on a sphygmomanometer are abbreviated). In comparison, music therapy only brought blood pressure down by 6 mmHg.

After three months, the blood pressure readings significantly decreased overall by 5 mmHg among the laughers. People in the comparison group showed no change in blood pressure readings.

3. THIS HAS LED TO A TREATMENT KNOWN AS LAUGHTER YOGA.

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The success of laughter studies on blood pressure and other ills has led to a unique kind of treatment known as "laughter yoga."

Madan Kataria, founder of the Laughter Yoga School, told Medscape, "You don't need any jokes, any humor, or any comedy. You don't even need to be happy. What we do is laugh in a group and initiate laughter as a form of bodily exercise, but when we have eye contact with others, this laughter becomes real and contagious."

Kataria led a study of 200 male and female individuals who participated in laughter yoga sessions for 20 to 30 minutes. The researchers stimulated laughter in the participants for between 45 seconds and one minute, followed by deep breathing and stretching for the duration of the sessions.

Subjects who laughed saw a reduction in their systolic blood pressure of more than 6 mmHg, a significant change from baseline and also significant when compared with a non-laughing control group. Diastolic blood pressure was also significantly reduced. In addition, their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also reduced.

As a result, laughter yoga has gone on to be used as an intervention for a variety of health issues, ranging from stress to dementia.

4. LAUGHTER CAN REDUCE ANXIETY AND OTHER NEGATIVE EMOTIONS.

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A 1990 study in Psychological Reports looked at the effects of humorous laughter on threat-induced anxiety. Researchers led 53 college students to believe (falsely) that they were going to receive an electric shock after a waiting period.

Subjects in the experiment group listened to a humorous tape while waiting for their shock. The placebo group listened to a non-humorous tape, and the control group did not listen to any tape. The humor group reported that their anxiety decreased during the anticipatory period, and those with the highest self-reported level of sense of humor had the lowest reported anxiety.

Laughter therapy has also been shown to improve anxiety in patients with Parkinson's disease [PDF], reduce anxiety and depression in nursing students, and improve optimism, self-esteem, and depression in menopausal women.

From a general psychological perspective, author Bernard Saper suggests in a paper for Psychiatric Quarterly that the ability to maintain a sense of humor and the ability to laugh can act as positive coping mechanisms to help a person get through difficult times.

5. LAUGHTER AS AN IMMUNE BOOSTER.

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At the beginning of cold and flu season, it may be a good idea to practice some laughter therapy, as several studies have shown the immune boosting power of a chuckle.

In one 2015 study on postpartum mothers in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers tested hand-expressed breast milk for immunoglobulin (IgA, antibodies that play an important role in immune function) before and after laughter therapy. 

Twice a week, participants engaged in group "laughter dance routines" and some light breast massage while inducing laughter. Mothers who participated in the laughter therapy saw a small increase in their IgA. However, even a small amount was significant to the researchers, given that the postpartum period is when natural IgA in breast milk declines (it is at its highest level right after delivery, in the earliest, nutrient-dense breast milk known as colostrum).

Another study with college students found that watching funny movies increases salivary IgA (sIgA). Researchers have also found small examples of laughter's ability to increase the body's natural killer cells (NKs), a type of lymphocyte that is easy to test for in the blood. One study in the American Journal of Medical Science, albeit small—a cohort of only 10 male subjects—found significantly increased NK cell activity in the experimental group. Additional studies have shown increases in NK cell activity after laughter therapy or humorous videos, but most of these studies were done on male subjects

6. LAUGHTER MAY ACT AS A NATURAL ANTI-DEPRESSANT.

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While nobody would recommend laughter in lieu of other treatment for depression, it has shown promise at ameliorating depressed moods. Patients in long-term care facilities often suffer from depression and poor sleep, so a 2017 study in the Korean Journal of Adult Nursing [PDF] tested the effects of laughter therapy on 42 residents of two long-term care hospitals. The results were promising.

The laugher therapy, which the subjects undertook over eight sessions, for 40 minutes twice a week, included "singing funny songs, laughing for diversion, stretching, playing with hands and dance routines, laughing exercises, healthy clapping, and laughing aloud."

The results showed reduced depression and general mood improvement as well as improved sleep in the experiment group compared to the control group.

Another 2015 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that three 60-minute laughter therapy sessions improved the depression and negative mood states of cancer patients.

7. YOU BREATHE BETTER AFTER LAUGHING.

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It turns out that a good bout of deep belly laughter can lead to increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption, which are similar to what happens during exercise. While a 2009 study in the International Journal of Humor Research found that these changes only last as long as the laughter itself, if you can laugh like that for 30 minutes to an hour, maybe you can skip the gym.

8. LAUGHTER IS GOOD FOR YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM.

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Your lungs aren't the only organ that benefits from a great guffaw. A 2009 study in Medical Hypotheses found powerful benefits to the heart and cardiovascular system.

Study participants watched either a comedy like Saturday Night Live or the bleak opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which is known to increase mental stress. They used a technique called brachial artery reactivity testing (BART), a form of ultrasound that looks at the brachial artery. Participants who watched the stressful movie experienced a 35 percent reduction in flow-mediated vasodilation (FMD, or how blood vessels dilate and contract); sluggish FMD is a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, the group that watched the funny scene saw a 22 percent increase in FMD, comparable to exercise. In short, laughing helped their blood flow better.

The American Heart Association recommends laughter for a healthy heart, adding that research has shown laughter promotes reduced artery inflammation and increased production of HDL, or "good" cholesterol.

9. LAUGHTER CALMS STRESS HORMONES.

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Humor, and by extension, laughter, stimulates multiple physiological systems that decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the activation of the dopamine-dispensing reward system of the brain, according to researchers of a 2017 study in Advances in Physiology Education. A 2003 study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that viewing a funny film decreased a wide variety of stress hormones.

10. SOCIAL LAUGHTER CAN RELIEVE PAIN.

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Laughter might be as good as some analgesics for pain, something early physicians seemed to understand. In the 14th century, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville used humor to distract patients from the pain of surgery and to help them during recovery.

More modern research has found that participants who watched comedy videos needed less pain medication than those who watched control videos. In a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, over the course of six experiments using extreme cold as a pain-tolerance measure, researchers found that social laughter—laughter done in groups in a social context—elevates pain thresholds. The authors suggest, "These results can best be explained by the action of endorphins released by laughter."

11. LAUGHING BURNS CALORIES.

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As if all of these benefits aren't a good enough reason to giggle every day, a 2014 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that laughter can burn calories. Researchers broke a group of 45 participants into two groups, half of whom watched film clips intended to evoke laughter for approximately 10 minutes, and half who watched film clips unlikely to stimulate laughter. Both groups were attached to a "calorimeter" that measured energy expenditure and heart rate. They determined that those who laughed during their viewing burned up to 10 calories in 10 minutes, as compared to those who did not laugh and did not burn any calories.

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Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why
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Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
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On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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