The virtues of laughter


Jokes, pleasant surprises and the laughter they can provoke give relief to everyday life.

When we giggle or laugh, we can have the impression of making noises that are a bit ridiculous or stupid. But laughing actually takes a lot of work, because it activates many areas of the brain  : areas that control motor, emotional, cognitive and social processes.

As I saw in writing “Introduction to the Psychology of Humor,” researchers now even see laughter as a potential factor in improving physical and mental well-being.

The powers of laughter over physiology

People start to laugh from childhood, which helps us build muscle and upper body . It’s not just about breathing: laughing relies on complex combinations of facial muscles, often involving movements of the eyes, head and shoulders.

Laughing, whether you are laughing yourself or watching someone else laugh, activates multiple areas of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles, and the frontal lobe, which helps you understand. the context, and the limbic system , which modulates positive emotions. Activating all of these circuits strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity.

By activating neural pathways for emotions such as joy and mirth, laughter can help improve our moods and lessen our physical and emotional responses to stress. For example, laughing can help control brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, just like antidepressants do . By minimizing our brains’ responses to threats, laughter limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, like cortisol , which can strain our cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems over time. Laughter is like an antidote to stress , which weakens our protective systems and increases our vulnerability to disease.

Understanding a joke is good brain training.

The cognitive powers of laughter

When someone makes a joke, the laughter that follows is largely dependent on our social intelligence and memory.

Laughter, like humor, often arises when recognizing incongruities or absurdities in a situation . Before laughing, one must be able to mentally resolve the dissension caused by the surprising behavior or event. Infering the intentions of others and understanding their point of view can reinforce the comedic effect and the intensity of the laughter.

To understand a joke or the comedy of a situation, you need to be able to see the lighter side of things, be open to non-literal interpretations, for example when being amused by comics with talking animals. , like Donald, Jolly Jumper or Rantanplan.

The social power of laughter

There are many cognitive and social skills that come together to help you determine when and why laughter occurs during conversations. You don’t have to have heard laughter to be able to laugh, as demonstrated by the use of laughter to punctuate sentences in sign language , much like emoticons in written text.

Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nilsen notes that laughter rarely occurs when one is alone , which underlines its social role. From an early age, laughter in infants is an outward sign of pleasure that helps strengthen bonds with those who care for them.

Later, it’s an outward sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation. For example, speakers and comedians try to make the audience laugh so that they feel psychologically closer to them, to create intimacy.

Practicing laughing a little every day can improve social skills that may not come naturally to you. When you laugh in response to a touch of humor, you are sharing your feelings with others, which teaches you to juggle the risks of a social response (such as having your response accepted, shared or appreciated by others, rather than rejected, ignored or frowned upon).

Studies by psychologists have shown that men with type A personality characteristics – for example, competitiveness and hyperactivity – tend to laugh more, while women with these characteristics laugh less. Women and men laugh more with others than when they are alone.

The effects of laughter on the mind

Positive psychology researchers are studying how people can live meaningful lives, and thrive. Laughter produces positive emotions that lead to this kind of fulfillment. These feelings – like fun, happiness, mirth, and joy – build resilience and increase creative thinking . They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction . Researchers have found that these positive emotions experienced with humor and laughter correlate with appreciation for the meaning of life and help older people have a positive view of the challenges they have encountered in their lifetime.

Laughing in response to fun is a healthy coping mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself less seriously and you may feel more able to solve problems . For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of laughter in 41 people over a two-week period, as well as their level of physical and mental stress. They found that the more laughs , the lower the stress – regardless of the sound level of the laughs studied.

Can we work on our laughter to benefit from it?

A growing number of therapists advocate the use of humor and laughter to help patients regain confidence and improve their work environment  ; a review of five different studies found that measures of well-being increased after laughter interventions. These interventions take the form of daily humorous activities – surrounding yourself with funny people, watching a comedy that makes you laugh, or writing three funny things that happened today.

You can practice laughing even when you are alone. Intentionally take a prospect who appreciates the funny side of events. The Laughter Yoga is a technique that involves using the breathing muscles to get the positive physical reactions natural laugh with a forced laugh ( “hahaha hihihi hohoho”).

Researchers today don’t take these studies lightly, but much of the research on the influence of laughter on mental and physical health still relies on self-reports. More focused studies of experimental psychology, around laughter or the contexts in which it occurs, will likely confirm the importance of laughing throughout the day. They may even suggest other ways to use the benefits intentionally.

Author Bio: Janet M. Gibson is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Grinnell College