Smiling and laughter are simple expressions, but experiencing them can make any normal situation into something special. Whether it’s the surprise of a stranger smiling at you on the subway, or the comfort of your boss laughing with you about some joke, there is something magical about this ordinary expression. We love to laugh together for a number of reasons. Smiling and laughing are not only fun, they’re good for your health—not just physically, but socially and emotionally, as well. Let’s dive into the benefits of smiling and laughing to find out why a laugh a day really does keep the doctor away.
Benefits of Smiling and Laughing
Smiling and laughing seem to be phenomena that have developed on an evolutionary basis. Human expressions of happiness
are culturally universal. They are one of the most basic human behaviors, starting at six weeks after birth, when babies start mimicking the smiles and laughter that the adults around them express in pleasant moments. Children learn to tell their caretakers when they are happy very early in life, and continue to apply this communication skill for the rest of their lives.
The simple, genuine behaviors of smiling and laughing seem to have exceptional impact on social interactions, enabling unique bonds with friends and family and setting a basis for joyful communication. There is a good reason for how much people appreciate sharing a sense of humor in friendships and relationships.
Having a good laugh improves the atmosphere by making it more relaxed and less tense, leading to less conflict and more cooperation. Having something to laugh about with a friend, coworker, or family member gives you some common ground for good feelings. Practicing humorous exchanges sets a precedent for positive interactions in interpersonal relationships.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
Research has shown that laughing for 10 – 15 minutes a day burns up to 40 calories and relaxes muscles for up to 45 minutes. Even more importantly, laughter boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the release of endorphins. Frequently described as ‘happiness hormones’, endorphins are released during physical sensation and activity, and are responsible for feelings of euphoria and pain relief. Opiate and opioid pain medication actually works by binding to the same receptors that endorphins affect. While opiates are necessary in unfortunate situations that require anesthesia, the brain is actually pretty good at stimulating opiate receptors by releasing its own hormones. Endorphin release leads to an increase of positive emotions, which definitely qualifies it as a laughing matter.
While smiling and laughing are clearly beneficial to physical health, they seem to have an even more powerful effect on mental health. Crawford and Caltabiano (2011) conducted an experiment that involved the use of a group humor skills program. The study found that participants who were “trained in humor” by the program showed increased self-efficacy, positive thinking, optimism and perceptions of control, and decreased negative thinking and depression and anxiety symptoms, as compared with untrained participants. Knowing what to say to make others laugh can actually help protect you against common mental health problems. Most importantly, knowing your way around humor helps reinforce a positive state of mind.
Beauty Knows No Pain—Or Does It?
So what happens if you can’t physically smile or laugh? Do the positive effects of these behaviors diminish? In 2010, Davis et al. compared the impact of BOTOX injections (which paralyze muscles of facial expression) and control Restylane injections (which is a cosmetic filler that does not affect facial muscles) on self-reported emotional experience. Between-groups comparisons showed that relative to controls, BOTOX participants exhibited a significant overall decrease in the strength of their emotional experiences. Apparently, the physical act of smiling and laughing really intensifies good feelings. Because of the endorphin release that physical laughter triggers, this should come as little surprise.
Laughter should be a part of everyday life, but it is also possible to incorporate it into your daily routine as an exercise. This type of workout is called Laughter Yoga. A recent study demonstrates that after one session of laughter yoga, participants experienced a decrease in both stress and anxiety, as well as an overall improved sense of well-being and a decrease in negative emotions (Internicola, 2012). Sounds laughable? That’s a reason to try it out!
Laughter and Pain
The next time you have to go to the dentist, consider watching a comedy show or doing some laughter yoga first! Research shows that laughter can increase your pain threshold, allowing you to tolerate higher amounts of pain than usual (Dunbar et al., 2012). This can be explained by the release of endorphins that laughter triggers, which basically act like a mild anesthetic. But laughter doesn’t just help you to withstand physical pain.
Laughter seems to help decrease the mental pain of anxiety, as well. In another study, a group of people was asked to watch ten funny cartoons before taking a math test. Compared to participants who red ten poems, the group who did more laughing had decreased anxiety about the test. This lead to higher test scores for the cartoon group, demonstrating once again that laughter really is good for your mental health.
Have you ever been so surprised or horrified about something that all you could do was laugh? Uncontrollable laughter probably seems like an inappropriate response to high-stress surprises, but it’s probably actually protective of your brain. When your brain exposes itself to too much stress hormone, areas with a lot of receptors for those hormones actually start to die off (Conrad 2008). Since endorphins protect your brain from experiencing excessive stress, laughing in response to a horrible surprise might not be the most sensitive thing to do, but it might actually cut down on the amount of brain cells that get killed in the process.
Fake Smiles are Better Than No Smiles
What if you’re having a stressful day, and can find absolutely no reason for smiling and laughing? Don’t wait for it, just fake it! Psychologists at the University of Kansas have found that fake smiling may actually also decrease stress (Kraft & Pressman, 2012). Participants were asked to perform two difficult tasks while holding two chopsticks between their teeth in a manner that either activated the facial muscles to produce a smile, or a neutral facial expression. By measuring their heart rates, the researchers found that the “smiling” participants recovered from the stressful tasks more quickly than the ones with a neutral expression. When it comes to the benefits of smiling, it looks like you really can fake it ’til you make it.
If you are still not convinced that a laugh a day keeps the doctor away, here’s one last argument: it also makes you more attractive! Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research shows that seeing smiling faces increased the activation of the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the brain region that responds to the perception of attractive faces as rewarding. Smiling demonstrates to others that you going to be positive to interact with, and will probably make other people feel as good as you do. So, for whatever reason, just go out there and smile!
Conrad, C.D. (2008). Chronic stress-induced hippocampal vulnerability: The glucocorticoid vulnerability hypothesis. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 19(6), 395-411.
Crawford, S.A., & Caltabiano, N.J. (2011). Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6 (3), 237 – 252.
Davis, J.I., Senghas, A., Brandt, F., Ochsner, K.N., 2010. The effects of BOTOX injections on emotional experience. Emotion, 10 (3), 433–440.
Dunbar, R., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., Van Leeuwen, E. J., Stow, J., Partridge, G., Macdonald, I., Barra, V. & Van Vugt, M. (2012). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279 (1731), 1161-1167.
Francis, H. (2013). Perth Discovers the Joys of Laughter Yoga. Retrieved from http://www.watoday.com.au/lifestyle/perth-discovers-joys-of-laughter-yoga-20130614-2o81p.html
Internicola, D. (2012). Laughing Yoga Cultivates Merry Mindfulness. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/09/us-fitness-yoga-laughing-idUSBRE86809U20120709
Kraft, T. L., & Pressman, S. D. (2012). Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science, 23(11), 1372-1378.