The Power of Laughter: A Healthy Contagion
Close your eyes and picture a happy gathering. Visualize the faces of friends and family. Close your eyes tighter now, squeezing out all other senses except sound. Hear the noises of the happiness. I’d be very surprised if laughter wasn’t there, possibly even the dominant sound—and for good reason: Laughter drives health and happiness.
“When the first baby laughed for the first time,
its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about,
and that was the beginning of fairies.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
As we begin to interact with the world as tiny infants, we watch and copy those around us. Before our brain develops the connections that enable speech, we learn to smile and laugh. This is a curious phenomenon that emphasizes the value of an immensely powerful act. You might question why babies should choose to copy something that adults do with much lower frequency than children. Actually, it’s not so surprising. Adults laugh far more in the presence of babies than they do elsewhere, underlining the deep association between this instinctive reflex and true happiness.
Laughter is a spontaneous gesture that is triggered unconsciously. It cannot be forced, making it a hard subject for scientists to study. We know that the average adult laughs 17 times a day. The vast majority of times, it’s not in response to a joke, indicating that it’s less an expression of humor than an expression of comfort and familiarity (and sometimes even nervousness). We laugh much more when we are with other people, reinforcing the role of laughter in interpersonal bonding, a profoundly healthy engagement. And only humans laugh! Although primates smile under similar social circumstances, laughter is unique to our species, a precious gift.
Laughter appears to have several physical benefits for us, including a decrease in blood pressure, an increase in blood flow, and an increase in oxygenation of the blood. It also recruits activity from the facial, core, and respiratory muscles; in fact, it is estimated that 100 laughs are equivalent to 15 minutes on an exercise bicycle.
Laughter has been shown to increase the number and activity of potent immune cells that are involved with attacking foreign pathogens (infections) and cancer. It also boosts other critical cells that are responsible for antibody production. These benefits may all be related to the laughter-induced decrease in stress hormones—those chemicals that, if left unchecked, can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and increase the number of clotting cells in the blood (predisposing us to heart attack and stroke). Laughter also releases dopamine, endorphins, and the feel-good hormone serotonin to enhance mood and further reduce the adverse effects of stress.
Like smiling, laughter is contagious, as anybody who “gets the giggles” knows. So, when we laugh with friends, we not only benefit personally, but we share the health and happiness.
I have often found it sad that we laugh less as adults than we did as children. It seems that, once we get “serious” about life, we cannot be seen to be trivial or frivolous. If only we could remember that laughter is great medicine.
So, whether you’re an overworked business leader, an exhausted parent, or simply taking a well-earned break from back-to-back Zoom meetings in this strange moment in world history, stop…take a deep breath…and laugh out loud!
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.