Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Laugh
Doctors explain how a good giggle can elevate your health, extend your lifespan, and even strengthen muscles.
It was probably the least funny atmosphere anyone could imagine: My daughter’s funeral. Yet, as I stood up to say a few words, my sister leaned over. “Hey,” she whispered. “Don’t forget to put the FUN in funeral!”
The joke itself isn’t that funny, but in the moment it struck me as so absurd that I couldn’t help but crack up. Which made her start laughing. And then we both couldn’t stop laughing. We laughed until we cried and…I felt my heart heal, just a little bit.
I’ve thought about that moment a lot since then. The average person laughs about 20 times a day, according to the Berkley Well-being Institute—but why on earth would it feel so good to break out laughing during a funeral…much less, the funeral of my child?
It’s not as uncommon as you may think, says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, clinical psychologist and past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. “Dark humor has always been a way for people to cope with stressful situations, express emotion, and bond with others,” Dr. Sultanoff explains. As a practicing “clinical mirthologist,” Dr. Sultanoff actually prescribes humor to his patients, especially those who are going through a tough time.
Why? “Laughing is a complex physiological process that affects every part of your body, from your brain down,” Dr. Sultanoff says. Here’s what’s actually happening inside you when you chuckle, giggle, crack up, or guffaw.
What laughter does in your brain
When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins, the body’s natural “feel-good chemicals,” instantly reducing stress and boosting feelings of happiness and well-being, says Karla Robinson, MD, Medical Editor at GoodRx. “This brings on a state of calm in your brain which triggers a cascade of relaxation responses through your body,” Dr. Robinson says. “The physical act of laughter causes you to take deeper breaths, bringing in more oxygen to your brain and body.”
Laughter also counteracts feelings of depression and anxiety by flooding the brain with endorphins, Dr. Sultanoff adds.
What laughter does to your eyes
Ever laughed so hard that you cried? Or cried until somebody made you laugh? Big emotions, including laughter, can stimulate the lacrimal glands in your eyes, says Dr. Robinson. “These glands produce tears, which are normally released when we experience strong emotions such as happiness, sadness, joy, amusement, relief, or frustration.”
It’s not just the strong emotional component of laughter that triggers tears, laughing also causes your facial muscles to contract, which can put indirect pressure on the tear ducts and cause a few tears to escape.
What laughter does to your heart
Next, laughing affects your cardiovascular system—causing your heart rate to increase and your blood pressure to rise temporarily, which circulates that extra-oxygenated blood throughout your brain and body. This gives you that feeling of uplift or euphoria many people experience during a hearty laugh.
Plus, Dr. Robinson says, laughing is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. “Consistent stress is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease and other chronic health conditions,” says Dr. Robinson. “Finding ways to laugh every day is one of the easiest (and most fun ways) to stay relaxed and manage stress, both in the moment and long term.”
What laughter does to your nervous system
Laughing can also stimulate the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. Dr. Robinson says chronic production of cortisol isn’t good for your body, but because laughing is a positive, non-threatening experience, these hormones are stimulated in small amounts that make you feel energized and engaged with your environment.
What laughter does to your muscles
Chuckling as a workout? If you’ve ever laughed so hard that your cheeks or your abs hurt, then you won’t be surprised to learn that laughter burns about 40 calories in 15 minutes—mostly by engaging your muscles, says Dr. Robinson.
Laughing activates the muscles in your face, neck, and chest, as well as your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, she says. “This can help to increase your circulation, improve your digestion, and even strengthen your immune system,” she says.
What laughter does to your whole body
“We have a lot of scientific evidence now that backs up the power of humor throughout the body,” says Dr. Sultanoff. Some of those systemic health benefits include:
Improved well-being and emotional state, reducing negative thought patterns over time
Strengthened immune system, helping you get sick less often and recover faster
Connected socially, strengthening your bonds with others and reducing loneliness
“Laughter really is the best medicine, it helps us physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially,” Dr. Sultanoff says. “But to get the full effect you have to share it!” So that’s your healthy homework for the day: Find something that cracks you up and then share that laughter with someone else. Document your progress by keeping a laughter journal.
Karla Robinson, MD, a family medicine practitioner and Medical Editor at GoodRx
Steven M. Sultanoff, Phd, clinical psychologist, past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, Professor at Pepperdine University, Practicing Clinical Mirthologist
Berkley Wellbeing Institute: "Facts about laughing"