Menus Subscribe Search

Health Care

body-on-laughter

(Photo: Sergey Furtaev/Shutterstock)

This Is Your Body on Laughter

• May 21, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Sergey Furtaev/Shutterstock)

Several new studies exploring the effects of laughter are contributing to a fast-growing body of research that finds just how important it is to keeping us happy, healthy, and sane.

When people say that laughter is the best medicine, they often mean that chuckling can help us to get through some tough moments. But laughter is gaining acclaim as a healthful force in and of itself—new studies are probing the particulars of how it works, and researchers are pushing for wider acceptance of mirth as medicine.

Laughter, we now know, perks up the brains of older people. In a recent presentation at an annual meeting of experimental biologists, Gurinder Bains, a doctor and researcher at Loma Linda University, presented results of a study he ran with two groups of elderly volunteers. One was a healthy group of adults, the other a group with diabetes. Both were shown 20 minutes of a funny video—they had a choice between watching America’s Funniest Home Videos or Red Skelton (a sketch comedy artist popular in the 1960s). “We had to think of something age-appropriate,” Bains says. “If I gave them Seinfeld, they probably wouldn’t laugh.”

Thirty seniors aged 65-72 were given a common assessment of cognition and memory before and after the video, and their cortisol levels were gathered late last year. The results were compared to those of a third group of similarly aged elderly individuals—a control—who were not exposed to any of the knee-slapping humor.

Berk has found that laughter and the anticipation of laughter can reduce stress hormones significantly—yes, just expecting to laugh is enough to trigger a response.

Bains’ research showed a significant decrease in cortisol in the groups that watched the funny videos. The individuals in those groups increased their scores on the memory test taken after watching the videos by 43.6 percent (the control group, which sat quietly for 20 minutes, also increased their scores over the first text, but only by 20.3 percent). Linking the results to the amount of the steroid hormone in the body, Bains points out that chronic elevated cortisol levels from stress affects the hippocampus, which eventually leads to impairments on learning and memory.

In the future, Bains hopes to study memory and learning in students who use 20-minute humor breaks instead of traditional study breaks. He believes so much in the work that he’s doing, that Bains even takes some of his own findings to heart, watching 20 to 30 minutes of stand-up comedy on YouTube every day. “You have to find something that makes you laugh,” he says. “Having a community and being more social leads to the big picture of improving your life.”

Bains is, in many ways, building on the work of his former teacher, Lee Berk, who has studied laughter for decades. Berk got his start by researching the impact of exercise on the brain and immune system, an area of interest that was considered heretical to doctors and researchers in the 1980s “because those things were always taught as silos.” One day, he got a call from Norman Cousins, a writer and editor of The Sunday Review who had contracted a debilitating autoimmune disease. Looking into the impacts of stress on the body, Cousins had come up with what he thought was a way to improve his health through laughter and contacted Berk to ask how much it would cost to research the subject.

With Cousins’ investment of $25,000, Berk joined a group of researchers looking into the gap between brain studies, immunology, and physiology, another unconventional idea. At the time, specialists “would rather use each others’ toothbrushes than use each others’ languages,” a colleague told Berk.

Berk has found that laughter and the anticipation of laughter can reduce stress hormones significantly—yes, just expecting to laugh is enough to trigger a response. In a study of heart patients, only eight percent of a group prescribed 30 minutes of laughter per day suffered a second heart attack, while 40 percent of a control group did. Berk’s studies have also found that a certain kind of laughter—mirthful laughter, as opposed to nervous or embarrassed laughter, Berk says—promotes good cholesterol and could even be used to treat appetite loss in older patients.

Laughter, of course, and especially mirthful laughter, is closely related to happiness—or a physical expression thereof—which is also being studied closely. A 2011 British study that followed 3,800 people aged 52-79, for instance, found that just 3.6 percent of people who rated themselves in the highest third of happiness died during the course of the five-year study, compared to 7.4 percent of the people in the least happy group. That drop in mortality held even after researchers accounted for chronic health problems, depression, and financial security.

“So is happiness the factor in lowering morbidity in individuals?” Berk asks. “The answer is yeah. Happiness is a dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. Happiness is optimal immune system responsivity.”

After seeing the results of his work, Berk says that he advises people to get serious about laughter. “One should be active and not passive in the process of one’s own wellness,” he says. “It isn’t a static state, it’s something you have control over.”

Katharine Gammon
Katharine Gammon is a freelance science writer based in Santa Monica, California. She writes about technology, innovation, and babies for a variety of publications.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.