The Health Benefits of Humor and Laughter

humor and laughter

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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A healthy sense of humor can help you deal with the coronavirus pandemic and other tough times. Humor might seem like a soothing balm or a light diversion. But humor is much more powerful than something that simply lulls us or calms us down.

It’s an often-overlooked tool in our arsenal in the battle to maintain good health. During times when we are barraged with economic, social, political and health problems, it’s wise to turn to a not-so-obvious way to protect ourselves. The myriad health benefits of humor and laughter are wide-reaching.

During moments of levity, while it seems like you’re simply laughing at a friend’s joke or a comedian’s monologue, you’re actually improving your health.

Doctors and mental health professionals cite plenty of research to remind us: laughter contributes to positive health outcomes.

By tickling our funny bones, clinical evidence shows we are not only being entertained, but enhancing the physical, psychological and social aspects of our well-being.

Physical Benefits 

At its most basic level, laughter exercises your diaphragm. It enables you to take in more oxygenated air and stimulates your lungs. During those moments of raucous laughter, you are relieving physical tension in your muscles.

Laughter Can Boost Heart Health

While those muscles relax, during what seems like a minor activity, medical professionals inform us that you improve your vascular functioning, too. As you laugh at hilarious events, your cardiac health improves. Laughter increases your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. That’s not even the whole gamut of benefits you stand to gain.

Humor Brings Comfort and Eases Physical Pain

Robert Bonakdar MD, FAAFP, FACN and Director of Pain Management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine lightens the mood when he greets patients. He says he “likes to bring laughter into the treatment room whenever possible. This is usually through an ice breaking comment that helps to put patients at ease and hopefully bring a smile to their face.”

This is purposeful as he’s not only helping his patients feel more comfortable by bringing laughter into his practice, he’s contributing to lessening their perception of pain.

Robert Bonakdar MD, FAAFP, FACN

We know that laughter has been shown in studies to improve your pain threshold, likely due to an endorphin-mediated opiate effect. What is interesting is that this appears to be independent of your mood meaning that it can have a positive effect even when you are down.

— Robert Bonakdar MD, FAAFP, FACN

Let’s say you have a migraine, but you’re watching a hysterically funny Netflix show. As you watch and laugh, you become distracted from the migraine’s pain and discomfort. But the distraction alone isn’t what reduces your pain perception.

Proven processes are working behind the scenes in your body to increase your pain tolerance. Endorphins, for example, get to work. Because you’re laughing up a storm, your body produces these natural painkillers.

Laughter Can Improve Sleep and Boost Immunity

Psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, says in an article from The Cleveland Clinic that laughing heartily and a lot offers another physical benefit: research shows it to improve sleep quality as well.

Overall, extensive laughter boosts the immune system which makes you more resistant to disease. Thus, by laughing—doing what seems like an innocuous activity—you are increasing antibody-producing cells and enhancing the effectiveness of T cells in your body. These cells act like a defense army to combat illness.

Psychological Benefits

While the COVID-19 pandemic is no laughing matter, humor can alleviate the stress and anxiety we are dealing with during the pandemic.

Laughing Reduces Stress

Clinical evidence shows that humor reduces stress hormones. Cortisol is a major stress hormone that circulates throughout your body when you’re stressed out. Decreasing levels of cortisol is important because high levels of cortisol tax your immune system.

When you’re preoccupied with something funny, you can’t simultaneously focus on negative situations. Therefore, humorous interludes give you a break from worrying. That space, that place where you can let your hair down and breathe, in and of itself is a benefit.

But this break from ruminating over your problems does even more for you. According to a Psychology Today article written by Marilyn Mendoza, PhD, ”Humor has a way of putting everything in perspective and as such, it reduces our fears.” She goes on to say that it “helps us to put some distance between ourselves and the difficult things we confront.”

Maybe after laughing, you discover a new angle on the problem. Perhaps you realize that you’ve gotten through other difficult periods and are reassured. With a new perspective, you might view threats such as challenges and problems as opportunities.

Or you might intentionally find the funny aspects of your stressful problem. If you’re embarrassed about something or need to forgive yourself for a mistake you made, you can use humor and laughter as a coping mechanism.

Research Shows That Humor Improves Memory

Another benefit of using humor that might surprise you relates to the brain as well. Using humor improves memory retention. When relevant humor is paired with a fact, you'll have better recollection of that fact.

In a study focused on humor's relationship to politics and news, researchers found that the information had a higher chance of being both remembered and shared if the content made the participant laugh.

Social Benefits

It’s more than okay to laugh together at things that are amusing, ludicrous or absurd. Relationships benefit when you connect with others through humor.

Laughter Brings People Together

A shared laugh creates bonds between people. Most of us remember a time when laughter became contagious and spread fast from two people through a group. People usually feel closer after laughing together, too.

Laughter Adds Positivity to Conversations

Humor has another worthwhile social benefit: it creates more positive communications between people. Just by sharing a meme or telling a joke, the other person is more predisposed to want to converse with you. Using humor, especially during tricky conversations or disagreements, can pave the way for a better discussion. It diffuses tension and relaxes the other person.

Sharing funny stories will not only cheer up your friend, relative or coworker, but will add to their well-being. They will likely walk away in a better mood and happier than before, too.

It all comes down to engaging with people in a human way. To laugh at one of your own traits or poke fun at yourself about a mistake you made requires a shared understanding about humanity.

Bianca L. Rodriguez, LMFT

There is something sacred about humor. If you can laugh at yourself, then you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others.

— Bianca L. Rodriguez, LMFT

Humor Helps You Understand Yourself and Others

Rodriguez underscores how the benefits of humor go beyond the physical, psychological and social realm. It connects with our understanding of ourselves and others. She says, “Humor is imperative to empathy and compassion, and forgiveness is a tenet of every spiritual tradition for this reason.”

Therefore, turn to whatever makes you laugh, especially during trying times. Those viral TikTok videos and funny memes are not momentary pleasures. They help us cope with anxiety, fear and grief, all of which are byproducts of the pandemic’s effects on our lives. At the same time, you’ll also be activating a host of health-related benefits for yourself and others.

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  1. The Cleveland Clinic. It’s OK to Laugh Right Now. June 18, 2020

  2. Mendoza M. Don’t Let Humor Become Another Victim of COVID-19. Psychology Today. Published April 11, 2020.

  3. Coronel JC, O’Donnell MB, Pandey P, Delli Carpini MX, Falk EB. Political humor, sharing, and remembering: insights from neuroimagingJournal of Communication. Published December 22, 2020. doi:10.1093/joc/jqaa041