Fun and pleasant surprises, as well as the laughter that they can cause, at first glance, may seem like just a stupid waste of time. But in fact, laughter activates many areas of the brain that control motor, emotional, cognitive and social processing. Researchers note the power of laughter to improve physical and mental well-being.
The physical power of laughter
People start laughing in infancy when it helps develop upper body muscles and strength. Laughter is more than just breathing. It relies on complex combinations of facial muscles, often associated with eye, head, and shoulder movements.
Laughter activates several areas of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles, the frontal lobe, which helps understand context, and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning on all these circuits strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activities.
By activating neural pathways for emotions such as joy and fun, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense.
For example, laughter can help control levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, similar to how antidepressants do. By minimizing your brain’s response to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems over time. Laughter is a kind of antidote to stress, which weakens these systems and increases vulnerability to disease.
The cognitive power of laughter
A good sense of humor and laughter are highly dependent on social intelligence and working memory resources. Laughter, like humor, usually comes from recognizing the inconsistency or absurdity of a situation. You need to mentally resolve the unexpected behavior or event – otherwise you won’t laugh, instead you might just get confused. Revealing the intentions of others and their point of view can increase the intensity of laughter and fun.
The social power of laughter
Many cognitive and social skills work together to help you keep track of when and why laughter occurs during a conversation. You don’t even need to hear laughter to laugh. Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nielsen notes that giggles and laughter rarely happen alone, maintaining their strong social role. From a very early age, infant laughter is an outward sign of pleasure that helps to strengthen the bond with parents.
By practicing a little laughter every day, you can improve social skills that may not come naturally. When you laugh in response to humor, you share your feelings with others and learn from the risks.
The mental power of laughter
Positive psychology researchers study how people can live meaningful lives and thrive. Laughter evokes positive emotions that lead to such blossoming. These feelings, such as fun, happiness and joy, increase resilience and develop creative thinking. They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Laughter has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to improve memory.
The researchers found that these positive emotions are correlated with understanding the meaning of life and help older people maintain a positive attitude towards the difficulties they have faced throughout their lives. Laughing in response to entertainment is a healthy survival mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself or the situation less seriously and may feel ready to tackle problems.
For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of 41 people’s laughter over two weeks, as well as their assessments of physical and mental stress. They found that the more people laughed, the less they reported stress. It didn’t matter if the laughter was strong, medium, or weak.
Maybe you want to take advantage of some of these benefits for yourself – can you make laughter work for you? A growing number of therapists are recommending the use of humor and laughter to help clients build confidence and improve their work environment. A review of five different studies found that measures of well-being did improve after the laughter intervention.
Additional psychological experiments with laughter or the contexts in which it occurs will likely confirm the importance of laughter throughout the day and suggest more ways to deliberately use its benefits.