Laughter is a universal language. Wherever you are in the world, the slightest hint of a smile can connect you to a stranger. It’s recognized by people and cultures across the globe, from Inuits in the Arctic to Maasai in Kenya. It is one of the most versatile communication tools, and forms of it are used by many different species. According to one study, even rats emit high-pitched squeaks when they are tickled (though don’t try this if you come across one).
We are born to be able to laugh; it is one of the first responses we learn. As we grow up, we develop our laughter ability and use it for a range of purposes. In addition to its being one of the natural reactions to humor (depending on how funny you are?), laughter can help in social situations. Think about it, have you ever laughed at jokes you don’t think are funny? It’s a way we feel we get accepted in groups or even show we like someone. Research by Sophie Scott, Ph.D., neuroscientist at University College London, shows that we tend to laugh more at jokes from people we like or who we want to like us. So next time you find someone guffawing at your one-liner, maybe it’s because that person really likes you.
The lovely thing about positive laughter is it’s contagious. Think about how many times you’ve laughed just at the sound of someone’s laughter? When we hear laughter, our body prepares muscles in our face to laugh. We are hardwired to find laughter funny. There are a bunch of neurons in our brains called mirror neurons, and they do exactly that, mirror other people’s emotions. This part of the brain helps with empathy and tunes into others’ emotions. This is the part of the brain that’s exploited in live recorded U.S. sitcoms, where audiences are often picked specifically for their infectious laughs. When we hear these laughs, we think the content is funnier, too!
Laughter is also really good for us for physiological advantages. As I mention in my book Laughology, research shows laughter can help blood vessels function better, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, relieve pain and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline, thereby helping to guard against weight gain, heart strain and lack of sleep. If you’re still not convinced of the advantages, you should know that laughter releases feel-good hormones such as endorphins and serotonin, which can boost the body’s immune system. As well as all that, laughter is a great workout, raising the heart rate and exercising the diaphragm, stomach and shoulder muscles.
And it doesn’t end there. Along with the social, chemical and physical effects, laughter gives us mental clarity in difficult situations and diffuses stressful ones. It provides a perspective that can encourage creative thinking and enhance problem-solving skills. It’s a powerful tool that can improve communication, relationships and decision making.
The human brain changes constantly in response to stimuli, such as behavior and environment, around us. This constant adjustment is called neuroplasticity—a process by which we learn and evolve. Neuroplasticity enables us to train our brains to use humor to find perspective, become more positive and be open to more laughter in our lives. Humor is also an effective tool for interrupting unhealthy automatic responses to everyday situations. For example, during family gatherings where there are lots of different personalities, some of which might clash, try to imagine how a comedian would view the situation from that perspective, concentrating on the humor.
You can even use laughter to trick yourself into having a good time. For example, all of us have found ourselves in social situations we don’t want to be in. At first, we fake interest and laughter. Then something strange happens. We begin to enjoy ourselves. This happens because the motor neuron function of the brain recognizes that the actions we’re performing—smiling, laughing, engaging socially—relate to an emotional state. Happiness. The brain, then, creates the emotional response to fit. So even though we may have to fake it at first, real laughs and feelings of happiness follow. That’s definitely something to celebrate!
Here are a few practical ways to increase the laughter in your life:
- Make a conscious effort to go to a comedy club once a month.
- Make a laughter board for your home or workplace with pictures and photos that make you laugh.
- Try to use positive language, not just verbally but in your internal dialogue as well. Substitute words such as “hard” for “challenging.”
- Be aware of the things that make you laugh and build a mental stock of these laughter triggers to be recalled at stressful times.
- Spend more time with the people who make you laugh and less time with those I call “mood hoovers” who leave you drained.