Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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