When It Comes to Health, Laughter is No Joking Matter

Black businessman laughing outdoors

Guy walks into a bar…

That line starts many a joke, but there’s no funny business about the value of laughter.

Beginning in the 1960s, multiple studies have shored up the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social benefits of a good laugh, especially for seniors.

To be sure, “laughter is the best medicine” is not just an old adage, it’s a proven fact backed by an actual branch of science called gelotology (from the Greek “gelos” for “laughter”).

Laughter Does a Body Good

There is not one system in the human body that isn’t positively affected by the biological, universal language of laughter.

Many hospitals and health care centers have incorporated clown cars and laugh mobiles to bring patients the healing benefits of humor. National Let’s Laugh Day (on March 19 in 2023) sets aside a whole 24 hours to celebrate the importance of laughter in our daily lives.

Interestingly, even a good “fake” laugh – like the voluntary kind elicited in the practice of laughter yoga – reaps the same rewards as a real guffaw.

Physical Benefits
In the 1970s, journalist Norman Cousins wrote a ground-breaking book, Anatomy of an Illness, detailing how humor and laughter improved his physical pain from disease. His self-prescribed “treatment” was to watch Marx Brothers movies.

Today, we know a lot more about how laughter benefits our physical health, particularly as we age. A regular dose of laughter does the following, and more:

  • Relieves pain. Research has shown that laughter increases pain tolerance, lowers the brain’s perception of pain, eases uncomfortable muscle tension, and releases the “feel good” hormones that block the nerve cells that receive pain signals (see more about “feel good” hormones below under Emotional Benefits).
  • Improves heart and lung health. Laughter reduces blood pressure, improves blood flow, and increases oxygen consumption. Lower blood pressure and better circulation decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease. When we laugh, we get rid of stale air in our lungs, allowing more oxygen to enter.
  • Burns calories, strengthens and tones muscles. “I laughed until my stomach ached” is not just something people say. Laughing gives a real core workout, plus it’s an aerobic activity that expends energy and burns roughly the same amount of calories as a short walk.
  • Boosts the immune system. Laughter increases serum immunoglobins A and E and activates illness-fighting T cells and antibodies that combat infection, improving overall health and resistance to disease.
  • Other physical benefits include lowered glucose levels, fewer heart arrhythmias, decreased inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis, and greater activity in the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system.

Emotional Benefits
Along with the physical advantages of laughter are significant emotional benefits. Laughter has been found to:

  • Release “happy hormones” in the brain. Laughter lifts our spirits by releasing the beta-endorphins in the human body that relieve stress and pain and naturally make us feel better. A hearty chortle also releases serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals that facilitate healthy brain function and improve mood.  
  • Decrease harmful levels of stress hormones. You might say the “evil twin” of the happy hormones are stress hormones like excess cortisol and adrenaline that put us at risk for depression, anxiety and overall less-than-well-being. A regular regimen of laughing lowers the hormones that can put us in distress.
  • Strengthen social connections. Scientists suggest that laughter evolved to enable bonding across large groups of people. But one doesn’t have to be an expert to know that laughing with friends – or even strangers – creates shared experiences, closer personal connections, and feelings of belonging. For older adults who are prone to loss, loneliness and isolation, the social ties strengthened by laughing together are invaluable.
  • Bring about relaxation. Laughing releases tension, creating feelings of relaxation, comfort, ease, and overall peace of mind.

Cognitive Benefits
For some seniors, memory and cognitive function can begin to dull or deteriorate. Another positive side effect of laughter is improved cognition, shown in a study of older adults who watched a 20-minute comedic video. Subjects experienced greater learning ability, longer recall, and better visual recognition. What’s more, the decrease in the stress hormone cortisol discussed above has been found to improve short-term memory.

Bring Out the Belly Laughs

Consider these interesting facts about laughter:

  • Children laugh about 300 times per day, while adults laugh only 17 times a day.
  • LOL – “laughing out loud” – is the most common texting abbreviation (though how many are truly LOL is not clear).
  • Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 laugh more than other age groups.
  • Babies begin to laugh at about four months of age.

Based on this evidence, we need to do more laughing as we age! But, adding more humor to our lives can be difficult, especially in troubled times.

Here are some ways to evoke the healing effects of laughter on a regular basis:

  • Watch or listen to movies, television shows, online videos, radio shows, and/or podcasts that match your personal sense of humor. This may take some searching, but the comedic channels available today are virtually limitless.
  • Practice five minutes of laughing out loud, even if it’s not spontaneous. Remember, a simulated laugh provides the same health benefits as the real thing, and you may even find yourself genuinely giggling!
  • Spend time in the company of children or pets. In the absence of real animals, funny pet videos like this one are among the most popular searches on YouTube.
  • Play a silly, social board game with a few friends. There has been an explosion of such games over the past few decades, and many can be played online or over Zoom.
  • Spend time chatting or reminiscing with friends. Chances are very likely you’ll end up laughing together.
  • Try to find the humor in a stressful situation. Sometimes, all we can do is laugh.

Laugh and the World Laughs with You

For seniors who live alone or feel cut off from others, laughter can be in particularly short supply. At Barclay Friends, we know how vital laughter and levity are to every aspect of healthy living. Providing daily opportunities for fun and fostering friendships is at the core of everything we do. There’s a reason “Friends” is in our name.

Discover how Barclay Friends can lighten life for you or a loved one. Schedule a tour today.