8 Health Benefits of Laughing, According to Neuroscience Research
Science has found laughter really is powerful medicine for the body and the brain—and it's likely fending off disease, too.
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You’ve experienced how a good giggle has a way of putting things in healthy perspective. Even better: Science says regular laughter can have healing and preventative effects for your health.
Research has found that from the time we’re born, laughter plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. Just as one example, an April 2020 study published in the Oxford Academic journal, Cerebral Cortex, suggested laughter is an important avenue for babies to form social bonds, understand emotions, develop capacity for memory, and forge important neural pathways in the brain. Research has shown that laughing is also key for a child’s physical development, like building muscle and upper body strength.
Plenty of research has found the benefits of laughter don’t slow down as we grow up. Psychology and neuroscience experts point to some incredible effects of having a laugh every day.
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1. Laughing reduces stress
It’s no secret a laugh is a good way to let off some steam. Laughter causes our muscles to contract and release, physiologically soothing us similarly to stress-busting techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. “But biochemically, it reduces stress,” says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University who has studied the health effects of laughter and humor for 35 years. Dr. Sultanoff says this reduction in stress occurs because laughing lowers cortisol, the stress hormone.
He points to research showing this, such as one 2021 study that looked at mental health during the pandemic. The study found that laughter suppresses hormones related to stress and anxiety, but impressively it also boosts chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine—all associated with happiness, pleasure, and stress resilience.
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2. Laughing promotes mental health
Managing stress is an important avenue to better mental health. But laughter goes a step further in boosting cognitive and mental health, says Brian King, PhD, a neurologist, psychologist, stand-up comedian, and author of The Art of Taking It Easy. “Processing humor and responding to it via laughter actually generates a tremendous amount of brain activity,” he says.
Dr. King adds that in particular, laughter “increases the activity in the left frontal region.” This activity promotes healthy cognitive function…and interestingly, one 2015 study in Korea found that regular laughter may also help regulate neurotransmitter levels in the brain, similar to the way antidepressants work.
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3. Laughing may lessen sensations of pain and discomfort
According to research in Current Research in Physiology, laughter is a natural painkiller.
Dr. Sultanoff says this effect is well-documented in other studies, too—one that employed ice water: “[Scientists] have someone put their hand and ice water until they can’t tolerate it anymore,” he says. Then the participants are put in a situation that makes them laugh. “After that, they put their hand back in the ice water and can keep their hands in the ice water significantly longer after laughter.”
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4. You get a mini workout
“Think of the muscles it takes to produce a laugh—not only in your face but also your core,” Dr. King says. “Then think of all of the other behaviors that we engage in as we laugh, such as clapping or stomping our feet. It’s a workout.”
Past research from the International Journal of Obesity found that just 10 to 15 minutes of laughing burns up to 40 calories, similar to brisk walking. Another 2022 study from BMC Geriatrics showed that people who participated in a 12-week laugh yoga program saw significantly improved body weight and BMI metrics, along with experiencing better stress levels and general well-being.
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5. Laughter strengthens your lungs
Humor has been shown to increase lung capacity and pump your body with oxygen-rich air, according to research from the Journal of Aging.
In addition, Dr. Sultanoff says, laughing increases the release of immunoglobulin A (IGA), a major antibody that protects you from illness and is particularly important in fighting upper respiratory diseases.
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6. Laughing boosts immunity
Dr. King says laughter boosts the effectiveness of certain cells in our immune system. The Journal of Aging research noted that after laughing, levels of these immune cells increased for as long as 12 hours.
Plus, says Dr. King: “As stress often reduces the effectiveness of our immune system, by helping to manage stress, laughter helps keep our overall immune system in working order.”
7. Laughing promotes heart health
A review of studies published in HUMOR found that the more you laugh, the lower your risk for heart disease. Laughing oxygenates your blood, boosts circulation, lowers your blood pressure, and improves heart rate variability (a measure associated with greater stress resilience, better mental health, and stronger heart health).
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8. Laughter could promote a healthier gut
Researchers are still exploring the physiological effects of laughter on the body—”but,” says Dr. Sultanoff, “we can make some interesting extrapolations.”
For example, he says we have plenty of research that shows chronic anxiety and chronic anger are associated with irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems. “You could certainly argue that a sense of humor—by way of reducing emotional stress and distressing emotions—can reduce these physical issues [related to anger or anxiety].”
All this to say: A regular laugh is not just a luxury, but essential for a healthy life.
Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University who has studied laughter and humor for 35 years
Brian King, PhD, a neurologist, psychologist, stand-up comedian, and author of The Art of Taking it Easy and the upcoming book Of Bears and Weight Loss
Cerebral Cortex: "The Power of Smiling: The Adult Brain Networks Underlying Learned Infant Emotionality"
Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing: "Effect and Path Analysis of Laughter Therapy on Serotonin, Depression and Quality of Life in Middle-aged Women"
Current Research in Physiology: "Laughter therapy: A humor-induced hormonal intervention to reduce stress and anxiety"
International Journal of Obesity: "Energy expenditure of genuine laughter"
Journal of Aging Research: "Humor Therapy: Relieving Chronic Pain and Enhancing Happiness for Older Adults"
HUMOR: "A systematic review of the effects of laughter on blood pressure and heart rate variability"