In this podcast (episode #358) and blog I talk about something we all do: laughing!
Have you ever thought about why emitting sounds from our mouths gives us so much joy? Even when those sounds can sometimes come out like a cackle, grunt, wheeze or even a snort? When we do this, we are most likely filled with joy, although there are times when people laugh out of discomfort, shock, anger, and/or sadness. In almost all these situations, however, there is something about laughing that relieves us—it releases tension and can improve our mood in tangible ways.
But what even is laughter? Physiologically, laughter is a sound that comes from our lungs with an exhalation of air. Our facial muscles contort when we laugh, and this is considered a somewhat involuntary or automatic response to some kind of stimulation.
And if you think of it, laughter is literally a form of communication. It’s an intrinsic part of our language; it is part of how we understand and connect with other humans. There are even some studies that show humans laugh 17 times a day!
Many of us love to laugh, which makes sense because it activates several reward systems in the brain. Studies have shown that laughing is heavily involved with the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses. It responds to the energy of the mind by facilitating memory storage and retrieval, and in establishing our emotional states. The limbic system also becomes very active when we self-regulate (by paying focused attention to what the nonconscious mind is sending us up through the conscious mind), and links our conscious, intellectual functions of the cerebral cortex to the unconscious, autonomic functions of the brain stem. Essentially, the limbic system is involved in our emotional and behavioral responses, like laughing, that we need to live our lives. Indeed, the limbic system is connected to feeding, reproduction, caring for our young, and our “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” response. This suggests that laughing is literally one of our most intrinsic human behaviors!
Laughter changes the neurochemicals in the brain, especially in the frontal lobe, which is associated with our emotions but also affects other parts of the brain. So, its impact is quite widespread!
Studies have shown that laughter can have a similar effect on the brain as antidepressants. Laughing can activate the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the same brain chemical affected by the most common types of antidepressants, which helps regulate our mood and causes the release of oxytocin. Often called the empathy hormone, oxytocin helps individuals bond and form groups and communities. Laughter can also alter dopamine activity, while the endorphins secreted when we laugh can help us when we feel uncomfortable or depressed. Laughter can also reduce the level of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which can make us more resilient to the impacts of toxic stress.
Laughing literally increases the amount of oxygen we have in our lungs. This, in turn, increases the amount of oxygen that flows throughout our body (in our blood), which goes to the heart and lungs and can increase the level of endorphins in our brain. This, in turn, helps us feel good and regulates our mood. The increased oxygen and blood flow can also help relieve muscle tension and help us think more clearly in the moment and make better decisions. Laughter can even act as a pain reliever by increasing blood and oxygen flow and releasing tension.
Some studies have shown that laughing can result in a release of neuropeptides. These are short strings of amino acids that are synthesized in and released by neurons or glia, and can affect the function of the nervous system in the body. Neuropeptides can be extremely beneficial in fighting toxic stress, and can even increase our immune system functionality. If we think about the mind-brain-body connection, we know that what we think and feel will also affect our physical health. Negative thoughts can potentially affect our health if left unmanaged because thoughts are real structures in the brain. The neuropeptides that are released when we laugh can help us manage any toxic stress we have and can potentially make us more resilient. Laughter can even keep our telomeres healthy, which, as we observed in our recent clinical trials and I discussed in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, plays an important part of managing our mental health and resilience.
Laughter is also good exercise! Some researchers estimate that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on the rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike. Indeed, many times people feel exhausted after laughing because of all the muscles it activates—it really is like a workout!
We all know that when we laugh at something humorous, we tend to feel better. When something makes us laugh, like a funny video or silly joke, we essentially give our mind and body a break, which is also great for our wellbeing.
A therapist friend of mine recently told me how she uses laughing to manage the stress of their job and not feel broken by listening to people’s deepest pains and fears all day long. She said that every morning while she gets ready and drives to work she listens to a podcast that makes her laugh. She uses this time to focus her mind on funny things and give her brain an opportunity to rest before starting the day. By doing this every day, she gives herself time to prepare herself mentally for the day ahead and not feel worn out by the time she gets to work.
We should all try to laugh more, regardless of what we do for a living. As mentioned above, all the neurochemicals and endorphins that begin to flow in our brains when we laugh can help with feelings of depression, sadness and anxiety we all experience. Even in situations when we are angry or sad, laughing can help ease our pain and frustration.
No wonder more and more psychologists and mental health professionals are promoting different types of “laughing therapy”. The idea behind laughing therapy is to teach people how to use humor as a healthy coping mechanism. Laughing is cathartic, it makes us feel joy, and it relieves our tension. It is an emotional release, so laugh more! It’s a fun kind of therapy!
I recommend finding out what makes you laugh and incorporating that into your daily schedule. I personally love watching my dogs play with each other, which never fails to make me laugh, or watching silly animal videos online! Read funny memes, watch funny TV shows, go to comedy shows, spend more time with funny people—whatever you love best! Check out this helpful link to find more things to make you laugh.
For more on laughter, listen to my podcast (episode #358). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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2:00 What is laughter?
3:45 Laughter as communication
4:25, 15:00 How laughing affects the brain & body
8:30 Laughing & self-regulation
9:30 How laughing helps protect us
13:00 Laughing, oxygen & blood flow
14:00 Laughing as tension relief
19:18, 24:25 How laughing helps us manage toxic stress
20:45 How laughing helps us rest & restore
21:00 Laughing as therapy
24:00 Laughter & mind management
26:30 Why we should all laugh more!
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.