The Science of Laughter

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

Stress has a way of zapping a lot in our lives. It can change our appetite, sleep cycles, mood, and even our sense of humor.

If you are amongst the millions that report changes in your humor when you are stressed, you may already know the importance of laughter. This post is all about the science behind why we need laughter in our lives.

What is Laughter?

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According to the dictionary, laughter is “the action or sound of laughing.” That is great and all, but what is laughing? I’m happy you asked! Laughing is a social and cultural behavior used to help us build connections with the people around us (Stierwalt, 2020). Have you ever noticed that you laugh more at something with more people are around? Yup, that is our brain’s way of trying to connect with people and release some much-needed oxytocin.

Laughter is not just a social connection, but it is also helping people determine a level of friendship they have with other people. Prime example: dad jokes. If you are laughing at a bad dad joke, chances are you are going to be rated as a closer friend to the person saying it than someone who roles their eyes and walks away.

How does Laughter Work in Our Brain?

Laughter is a response provided from your favorite brain system: the limbic system. As you recall, our limbic system houses the part of the brain we love: the prefrontal cortex. I bet you thought I was going to say that darn amygdala, huh? Don’t worry, that cheeky part of our brain is involved as well.

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Laughter is a cool thing as it involves the whole brain. It starts in the prefrontal cortex. Our problem-solving area of the brain is taking in the information around you to determine if laughter is the appropriate response. At the same time, your darn amygdala and hippocampus are searching the file cabinets to identify if you have experienced this in the past.

While these parts of your brain are activated, the linguistic parts of your brain come alive. This part of your brain is responsible for the words and sounds that come out of your mouth. Why is it activated? Honestly, it is preparing for a response (you know, like laughter or blurting out the punchline of a joke).

Speaking of problem solving; Two goldfish are in a tank. One fish turns to the other and says, “Do you know how to drive this thing?”

Laughter and Neurotransmitters

Laughter plays a huge role in the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters. Since laughter does multiple jobs, it releases different neurotransmitters:

  1. Serotonin: Laughter suppresses the flow of the stress hormone, cortisol, in your blood stream so you can feel happy, even for just a moment.
  2. Dopamine: Hearing people laugh at your joke helps you feel accomplished. Likewise, laughter at situations that call for it also help you feel like you accomplished something.
  3. Oxytocin: Laughter is known to help you feel socially and culturally connected to the people around you. The release of oxytocin helps your brain recognize when you are feeling safe and accepted by the people around you.
  4. Endorphins: Better known as the pain-relieving neurotransmitter, endorphins get released when you laugh to help “numb out” any emotional and/or physical pain you are experiencing.
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How Does Laughter Support Our Mental Health?

Laughter supports our mental health in a lot of different ways. Like we talked about above, laughter can:

  • reduce the levels of cortisol in our body, allowing the feel-good neurotransmitters to have room
  • shut down the Triple F Response to help you feel more relaxed
  • improve your short-term memory and ability to learn new tasks (thank you dopamine reward system!)
  • increase the size of your hippocampus

Laughter doesn’t just impact your mental health; it can improve your physical health as well. According to Mayo Clinic, the use of laughter has been shown to:

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  • Decrease physical and chronic pain
  • Improve your immune system and immune system response
  • Relax tense muscles for up to 45 minutes after you are done laughing (Robinson et al, 2021)
  • Increases blood flow and oxygenation (which we know helps lower our stress levels)
  • Aid in losing weight
  • Help you live longer

How to Improve your Sense of Humor

Sometimes, jokes fly over the top of our heads. If you have been struggling with chronic, long-term stress, maybe your sense of humor has been impacted. Never fear! There are ways to help you gain that sense of humor back!

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  1. Take time to watch funny videos – exposing yourself to things that are funny engages your hippocampus to remember these things, making you more likely to share these videos with people
  2. Tell funny stories about yourself – yes, this is a vulnerable topic, but hear me out. When you discuss a funny experience with people you are opening yourself up to the oxytocin that comes along with laughing with your peers.
  3. Find a joke buddy – we all know that one person that is awesome at telling jokes. By finding someone you can tell jokes, funny stories, or share memes with can improve your sense of humor (plus, it is fun)
  4. Develop comic vision – comic vision is where we find funny things in our environment (example: a dead-end sign next to a cemetery). Noticing these little things can help you not just relax, but engage your sense of humor
  5. Take time to learn jokes – Remember when we were kids and there were joke books in the school book sale? I bet you remember some of those jokes yet (I will never forget the joke, what do you call cheese that isn’t yours?). By learning new jokes, you are engaging multiple parts of your brain, on top of engaging in humor, and ultimately, laughter

We all could use a hand from time to time. In fact, the other day I was walking along the beach and heard someone calling for help. Looking over I saw a swimmer being circled by a shark. All I could do was laugh; I knew that shark wasn’t going to help.

Who knew laughter was so powerful!! I want to thank you for reading about why laughter should be part of your daily routine. Just like lunges, humor is a big step to brain health and feel-good neurotransmitter release!

To recap this post:

– Laughter lights up our whole brain

– Laughter is known to help improve mental and physical health

– Laughter helps you feel connected to people around you

– You can improve your level of humor in order to laugh more


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6 responses to “The Science of Laughter”

  1. TikTok always makes me laugh! I love watching silly pup videos to help me get a mood boost.

    1. TikTok is a go to for sure! There are so many people I follow just because they make me laugh

  2. When I’ve had an especially stressful day, I like to unwind with a cup of tea and a comedy show. Lately, my go-to has been Friends 😉 It feels good to laugh, and I can just feel all the heavy from the day falling away when I do. It’s nice to have a better understanding of the science behind it. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Friends is a great show! Right now, I am watching Space Force (highly recommend).

  3. I enjoyed reading about how laughter can change our brains. I know that for me even a small smile in front of the mirror can make a big difference in my day. I didn’t know about comic vision! I think that’s a great tip so that we find joy in little things in our environment and don’t have to rely on our phones or computers all the time.

  4. What a fun post! I know it’s cliché but laughter is truly the best medicine! I think it can even be helpful to think back to how good we felt last time we laughed so hard we cried! Even just thinking back to how our bodies feel when we’re happy and laughing can be good for our moods 🙂

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