Laughter is a social behavior; it brings people together and is often described as “contagious.” Charlie Chaplin coined the famous quote: “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” It is well-known that laughter produces happiness and positive thinking. However, many might not be aware of the science behind laughter or the other positive impacts it has on the human body and the human spirit. Children laugh more easily and readily, but it’s vital that this practice continues throughout the teen years and into adulthood.
Hunter Adams, M.D., commonly known as Patch Adams, has inspired millions of people by dressing up as a clown and bringing humor to sick patients in hospitals. “Healing is to be a loving human interchange not a business transaction,” according to his website. He and many other mental health and medical professionals believe the classic adage that laughter really is the best medicine
Laughter begins in infancy. As part of the universal human vocabulary, babies begin to laugh at around 4 months of age. Laughter promotes bonding for the infant and parent. For example, tickling babies will cause them to laugh, which, in turn, makes the parent laugh; a social bond develops during this playful exercise. This response is likely mediated by serotonin receptors, which, when stimulated, induce the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding.
Everyone laughs, no matter what language they speak, how old they are or where they are from. Laughter began long before humans existed. Primates are known to exhibit laughter when tickled, according to a tickle study published in a June 4, 2009, National Geographic. “Primatologist and psychologist Marina Davila Ross of the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth led a team that tickled the necks, feet, palms, and armpits of infant and juvenile apes as well as human babies,” wrote Brian Handwerk about the study. “The team recorded more than 800 of the resulting giggles and guffaws.” This tickle study found evidence that most ape laughter, especially among gorillas and baboons, shares key traits with human laughter.
Laughter’s health benefits
Research has shown that parts of the limbic system are involved in laughter. The limbic system is a primitive part of the brain that is involved in emotions and helps us with basic functions necessary for survival. The limbic system contains two structures, the amygdala and the hippocampus, both of which are important in the role of laughter. Laughter releases endorphins in these areas in the brain, which helps relieve pain and depression.
A study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), compared patients who were given a laughing stimulus such as a joke, with patients who were not given a joke. This study showed that these areas of the brain light up in response to patients who laughed at a joke compared to patients who did not receive the joke.
Other studies have shown that laughter lowers blood pressure, decreases heart disease risk and helps improve immunity. In 2005, researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center were first to report a link between laughter and healthy blood vessel function. Laughter causes dilation of the blood vessels’ inner lining, known as the endothelium, which increases blood flow and decreases atherosclerosis and heart disease risk.
Laughter also burns calories, because it uses the diaphragm muscles, which alludes to the phrase “I laughed so much my stomach hurt.” Laughter also stretches the face muscles and temporarily increases heart rate and blood pressure, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to the brain and burning more calories.
Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness and many other studies have proven that the body cannot differentiate between acted and genuine laughter. This led an Indian medical doctor, named Madan Kataria, to develop Hasya yoga (aka laughter yoga), a form of therapy that uses playful activities and guided breathing exercises to trigger laughter.
Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact and playfulness between participants. Forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter. Laughter yoga sessions start with gentle warmup techniques, which include stretching, chanting, clapping and body movement. These activities help break down inhibitions and develop feelings of childlike playfulness. Breathing exercises prepare the lungs for laughter, followed by a series of laughter exercises that combine acting and visualization techniques with playfulness. Laughter yoga is now practiced in more than 50 countries with about 200 clubs in the United States.
Laughter has physiologic and social benefits that can help patients with a variety of ailments, including depression, anxiety and pain. Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a treatment center specifically for teens that employs multiple techniques, including yoga, to treat mental health disorders, behavioral addictions, and drug and alcohol abuse. If you would like further information on our programs, please call 866-615-7266 to speak with a member of our team who will be happy to assist you.
Written by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health Group writer