The healing power of laughter

Zebra with mouth wide open and showing big teeth, laughing. Set against a pale blue sky.
image: iStock/Getty

“You can’t beat a good laugh.”

This is a popular saying where I live.

It’s one of the most pleasurable things a person can do. One of my fondest childhood memories is of watching episodes of Laurel and Hardy

It’s hilarious slapstick comedy set in the mid 20’s to mid 50s that follows the fortunes of two down-on-their-luck men – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It wasn’t just Stan and Ollie that formed my memory, though, it was seeing my Dad laughing so hard at them that he had tears streaming down his face.

Slapstick comedy of this kind has always been a favourite of mine. I recently watched an episode where Laurel and Hardy had to move a piano to the top of a very high flight of stairs and it kept falling back down, usually dragging Hardy with it. I was laughing so hard that my ribs were hurting.

If you’re ever in need of a pick-me-up, I’d recommend some Laurel and Hardy.

Laughter is not only one of the most pleasurable things humans can do, it’s also one of the healthiest.

The health benefits of laughter

Many people have heard at least a reference to the famous story of Normal Cousins who, after suffering with the debilitating pains of a connective tissue disease and ankylosing spondylitis, found that just a ten minutes of belly laughter each day had an anaesthetic effect that gave him about two hours of pain-free sleep.

Modern research can now point to why laughter was so successful for Cousins. We now know that it can dramatically reduce inflammation, and especially in people with high inflammation. And high inflammation is characteristic of connective tissue diseases and forms of arthritis, like ankylosing spondylitis.

And we now also know that it can reduce pain not only by deflating inflammation, but by increasing endorphins too. 

Laughter is also a tonic for mental health. It can boost happiness, alleviate depression, and reduce stress and reduce anxiety. It can even give us a sense of optimism in life. And it’s known to improve sleep quality.

It’s great for the heart. It can reduce blood pressure, improve blood circulation, and improve artery function.

It even gives some of our muscles a workout and burns calories. This is why laugher is sometimes referred to by researchers as, “internal jogging.” Laughter even improves respiration.

And it’s good for the immune system. Studies show it increases levels of beneficial antibodies and boosts natural killer cell activity. 

It boosts human connection too. Laughter is a social emotion. Outside of watching comedy on TV, we mostly tend to laugh with others. Laughing together for a common reason shows us that we are comfortable in the space together. It breaks down barriers and makes conversation freer. It  can unite groups of people who don’t know each other and even those who don’t usually get on.

It’s also contagious. I once demonstrated this during a lecture where I spoke a little about laughter, explained some of its health benefits, and then pointed out that when you see someone laugh it makes you laugh too. 

So I took a deep breath and then let out a loud laugh. It’s a laughter yoga technique. It starts as a pretend laugh but swiftly turns into the real thing. Then a few others started laughing. Within what must have been less than a minute, everyone had joined in the chorus of laughs.

And it all started with just one laugh.

But it’s not always easy to laugh. Sometimes in life, things have been tough for a while, and we struggle with finding a reason to laugh. Or even escaping from a feeling of heaviness long enough to be able to laugh. 

We’ve all been there. Many are right now. 

But we can learn, or re-learn, to laugh. We just sometimes get out of practice.

Laughter is trainable. The brain is neuroplastic. It means it’s always being shaped and rewiring. It’s what makes learning possible. 

They say that babies laugh about 300 times a day, compared with adults who laugh about 17 times, and some barely at all. As we grow up and learn to take life much more seriously, we just get out of the habit of laughing at everyday things.

But it’s one habit that would be healthy if we could rekindle it.

Your laughter project

How about you set yourself a “Laughter project?” Make it a goal to increase how much you laugh in life. Here’s a few ideas:

1) Make a list of comedy programmes, series, and films that you’ve laughed at in the past.

Determine to frequently watch or listen to something from your list. Think of it like taking a painkiller for a headache, except you’re taking an experiential laughter pill as a mood elevator.

2) Make a list of comedians you find funny.

Determine to watch or listen to something from your list as often as you can, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

3) Keep a look out for new comedy films or TV series.

4) Practice laughter yoga. Take a slow deep breath, pull a really broad smile, and then let out a big laugh as you exhale. 

Do it ten times a day, preferably in the morning as it’ll set you up for the day. The first couple of laughs will be pretend ones, of course, but you’ll soon find that they’ll become more natural as you practice it and that your smile muscles will start to feel much more comfortable in the smile position.

5) Try to see the funny side of life. Be on the lookout for funny things as you go about your day. 

If you decide to do this, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll see, hear, or come across that you would usually miss.

6) Take a pen and paper and write about some of the funny things that have happened in your life, either to yourself or friends or family. 

Recall funny events, things you’ve witnessed or experienced, things that didn’t seem funny at the time but now, on reflection, are hilarious.

7) Find some photos, cards, or even comic strips that you find funny. Stick them up around the house so you see them every day.

Why do we laugh at inappropriate times?

As I wrote above, laughter is trainable. Sometimes in life, we just get out of the habit of it. So let’s train ourselves to get back into the habit.

Before I finish this blog, have you ever found yourself laughing at inappropriate times? It’s quite common.

I know I have. There’s a few different theories as to why we do it. One theory goes that we do it unconsciously to try to lighten painful moments. It’s part of the social aspect of laughter. Some bit of our brain thinks that by laughing we’ll reduce someone else’s pain.

Another theory goes that it’s a way of regulating our own emotions, especially if we’ve been feeling emotional or overwhelmed. It’s a sort of reflex that helps us reduce the intensity of how we’ve been feeling.

But whatever the reason, it’s common. So don’t feel embarrassed if you do it.

Let me end this blog with one of my favourite jokes. 

“Did you hear about the scarecrow who won a Nobel Prize? 

It was outstanding in its field! “

Oh well, I thought it was funny. 

And just to finish, here’s some links to some of my favourite contagious laughter videos. Laughter on the tram. Laughter on NYC subway

Or just search for “Contagious Laughter” on YouTube. 

I just did it before I posted this and spent the last 15 minutes in tears!

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  1. Ali on March 15, 2023 at 11:42 am

    Perfect synchronicity!!!

    This post just delivered to my inbox after me watching jimmy fallon comedy sketches he right cheers me up I have been having some health worries and using your visualisation techniques is helping to

    • David Hamilton on March 16, 2023 at 12:01 pm

      I love the synchronicity!! It’s good to hear that the visialisation techniques have been helpful. 🙂

  2. Mary McManus on March 15, 2023 at 4:34 pm

    What a great blog David. I felt my mood brighten and my face smiling as I read it. This would make a great topic for a PDC session. I know you touched upon it at different times but it would be awesome to have a session on it! Thanks for all you do to use science to inspire us and help us to feel our healthiest, happiest and kindest selves.

    • David Hamilton on March 16, 2023 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks so much, Mary. I’m glad it brought a smile. I did it as a PDC session about two and a half years ago (Nov 2020). But it might be an idea to do it again and I find messages sink in better if I revisit a subject and present bits of it in different ways. 🙂

  3. Gillian N on March 16, 2023 at 11:08 am

    I recommend Dave Allen always, Sgt Bilko, Limmy’s ‘There’s a Guy in Ma Hoose’ sketch and any sharp comedy back in the day 70s/80s when we had freedom of humour.

    • David Hamilton on March 16, 2023 at 11:57 am

      Thanks Gillian. I loved Sgt Bilko when I watched it years ago. I’ve not seen the other sketch so will check it out. Thanks.

  4. Natalie Gilray on March 16, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    Fantastic article! I’m a Laughter Yoga leader in the Scottish Highlands and I love sharing the joy of laughter. There are soooo many health benefits associated with laughter (especially, deep belly laughter), yet, most of us underestimate the healing power of laughter. What’s great about Laughter Yoga is the fact that the body cannot tell the difference between real and pretend laughter so it will still gain all the wonderful mental and physical health benefits. Thanks for sharing your findings. Keep laughing!

  5. Aiveen on March 20, 2023 at 5:02 pm

    Thank you for this article about laughter David!
    And thanks for mentioning laughter yoga. Here is a link to my TED talk on this, and I hope you all enjoy it. It covers many of the benefits for us all and gives a little taster of laughter yoga.
    Love and laughter to all

    You may need to copy the address and paste to your browser.

  6. Lisa on March 29, 2023 at 8:27 am

    Thank you so much for this, after watching the videos you posted I was crying, and I feel so much happier! Humans are beautiful aren’t they.

  7. Clare Martin on November 9, 2023 at 3:34 pm

    It’s great that you highlighted that laughter serves as a tonic for mental health since it helps boost happiness, alleviate depression, reduce stress, and reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of optimism in life. Speaking of laughter, I’m doing a research paper on comedy for school, so I was thinking of checking out documentaries. I’ll make sure to keep this in mind while I look for a standup comedy documentary to check out for my research soon.

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