March 26, 2024/Mental Health

No Fooling: The Very Real Health Benefits of a (Good) Prank or Joke

A pro-level laugh can release good-for-you oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins

Two friends laughing together

Are you planning an epic April Fool’s prank? Working on your tight five for the next open mic night? Tapping out a legendary zinger in response to that text your best friend sent a minute ago?

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Well, congratulations: You’re doing something good for your health!

“A good laugh can reduce our stress level, increase our immune response and, some studies suggest, help us to live longer,” says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. Humor requires complex thought and sophisticated interactions with other people. And it can be a helpful tool for teaching and reinforcing social norms.

Dr. Albers explains why pranks and jokes, done right, can be great medicine — and how a little reflection can keep your foolishness from falling flat.

The health benefits of pranks and jokes

Humans aren’t the only animals that enjoy a good guffaw. Research shows that our cousins, the great apes, enjoy playful teasing, too! So do elephants, dogs and certain species of birds. That suggests that our gift for humor developed over millions of years to serve both biological and social needs.

They build and strengthen cognitive skills

Non-human primates might be great at playful teasing and tickling, but—as best we can tell — they aren’t yet masters of wordplay. That’s because some forms of humor require more intelligence than others.

“Being funny requires creativity, as well as other higher-order cognitive skills,” Dr. Albers explains.

There’s a reason “baby’s first laugh” is an important milestone. Laughter —as we’ll discuss later — is a learned response that can take several months of heavy-duty brain development to achieve. But not laughing doesn’t mean a kiddo’s funny bone hasn’t grown in yet. A 2022 study found that about 50% of babies appreciate humor at just 2 months old.

As babies get older, their sense of humor grows with them, and they start engaging in behaviors like teasing.

“They make funny faces and silly noises. They offer you toys only to snatch them away. They may try to ‘chase’ you. They’re taking in complicated information about human behavior, understanding it, and using what they’ve learned,” Dr. Albers says.

This process continues for years. Think about the jokes toddlers tell. Their knock-knock jokes and riddles, for example, demonstrate that they understand how we format a joke. But the content rarely makes sense. When toddler jokes are coherent, it’s often because they memorized them — with or without actually understanding what makes them funny. Their wit’s still cooking.

When children develop, typically, their sense of humor gets much more sophisticated around the age of 6 or 7. That’s because, according to P.E. McGhee’s 1979 cognitive stage theory, they’ve gained:

  • A more complex understanding of language. For example, they better grasp the concept of double meaning.
  • The ability to imagine the impact of their actions on both other people and objects.
  • The skillset needed to manipulate mental representations. In other words, they can organize and work with information to reach a conclusion or goal.

“Developing a sense of humor is a crucial part of growing up, and losing your sense of humor can be a sign of a medical or mental health concern,” Dr. Albers notes. “Dementia is a good example. People living with dementia may laugh at things that aren’t funny, laugh at inappropriate times, stop laughing altogether or tell mean-spirited jokes.”

As we age, it’s important to keep our minds active. Brain teasers and exercise are part of the equation, but so, too, are giggle fits. The science is becoming increasingly clear: The longer we laugh, the longer we live.

They build social skills

Playing a trick or having a laugh isn’t just about developing and stimulating your brain. According to Dr. Albers, it also teaches many important social skills, like:

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  • Knowing social norms. At its most basic level, humor is about undermining expectations and straddling boundaries. In order to make people uncomfortable in a good way, you need to be familiar with the spoken and unspoken rules in your community.
  • Active listening. To plan a prank or roast a buddy, you need to know them well. Doing that requires spending at least as much time listening to those around you as you spend talking.
  • Empathy. Being able to anticipate how somebody will react to a joke is key to avoiding hurt feelings, conflict and other unintended consequences. “Empathy is like a muscle,” Dr. Albers says. “If you don’t use it regularly, or use it too much, it can atrophy. And we need empathy to be successful in all of our interactions — not just the funny ones.”
  • Teamwork (sometimes). Truly devious pranks can bring us together to work toward a common goal. “Collaboration improves creativity, and helps us form social bonds,” Dr. Albers says.
  • Self-confidence. It takes bravery to step up to the microphone and tell a self-deprecating joke. But it isn’t life or death. Learning how to take small risks in controlled settings like a comedy club is a great way to cultivate self-esteem and self-love. It also helps you to trust yourself and those around you. “Laughter and applause are positive reinforcement,” she adds. “It’s a form of validation that you can build off.”
  • Boundary setting. We all have boundaries in place when it comes to humor. A good joke or prank is often carefully calibrated to straddle or test those boundaries — not break them. Learning how to identify and respect other people’s boundaries in the context of comedy can help us build and enforce boundaries in other areas of our lives, like our work or our relationships.
  • Resiliency. Have you heard the saying, “We laugh to keep from crying?” Well, it’s true! Laughter helps us bounce back and move forward in the face of adversity. We grow up being gently teased, startled, ribbed and poked fun at so that we can build the mental toughness we need to take a hit (or two or three) later in life. It’s a good thing — as long as that teasing doesn’t cross over into the realm of bullying. More on that later.

They’re good for your health

“A well-executed prank or joke will induce laughter. And research shows that laughing has wonderful benefits for our mental and physical health,” Dr. Albers shares. That’s because laughter serves an evolutionary purpose.

You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response. It’s our body’s way of loading the deck in our favor in perilous situations. Wide eyes, pale skin, trembling, hair standing on end: Back in the day, those physiological reactions did double duty. They helped us fight, fly or flee more effectively — and encouraged the other humans in our “pack” to do the same.

“When we were safe again, laughter was a sign that that the danger had passed,” Dr. Albers explains.

These days, the flight-or-flight reaction can be more annoying than helpful. That’s because it’s not being triggered by lions, tigers or bears. At least not normally. Instead, it’s coming online in response to bumper-to-bumper traffic, childcare hiccups and taxes. Mercifully, a giggle still tells our overloaded nervous system that it’s OK to unclench for, like, a second.

“It’s one of the reasons so many people laugh riding rollercoasters and watching scary movies,” Dr. Albers explains. “Those activities trigger our flight-or-flight response, but then we remember that we’re in a controlled, safe environment.”

All this to say, your silly pranks and jokes are a homemade antidote to stress!

Three main chemicals make laughter the best medicine: oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.

Offering up oxytocin

“When we laugh at a joke or a prank, our brains release a hormone called oxytocin,” Dr. Albers says. “Oxytocin is a bonding chemical — it makes us feel close to other people.” It’s sometimes called the “love hormone” because it plays such an important role in reproduction.

Research (and bucket loads of anecdotal evidence) tell us that humans tend to talk, laugh and smile more in the company of others than we do alone. That’s because it serves as a form of “social grooming.” That’s right: It triggers the same sense of comfort and belonging our ancestors got from having bugs picked off them.

A 2022 article theorizes that millions of years ago, our ancestors ran into what boils down to a scheduling problem. They needed to be in larger groups to survive, but there wasn’t enough grooming time in a day to bond everyone together. You can only braid so much hair and eat so many bugs, you know? So, the theory goes, they “co-opted laughter … as a form of chorusing to fill the gap.”

It’s an interesting theory because it helps explain all the different ways we laugh — and the fact that different kinds of laughter send very different signals.

“A genuine laugh sounds and looks different from a polite laugh,” Dr. Albers notes. “A good joke or prank produces authentic laughter and intensifies your connection with the people around you. An unsuccessful attempt may provoke laughter, but it won’t be the same.”

Dishing out dopamine

A hearty chuckle following a knee slapper or trick doesn’t just make us feel closer to our compatriots, but it’s also deeply satisfying.

It’s a dopamine thing.

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“Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter — we feel good when dopamine is released,” Dr. Albers says. It’s part of our body’s reward system, which is yet another evolutionary adaptation.

“It’s basically positive reinforcement,” she continues. “Our body releases dopamine to reward us for actions that help us survive.” Eating foods that have lots of protein, fat or sugar can all cause a dopamine dump, as can physical intimacy. Laughing can trigger a rush of dopamine for the same reason.

“It’s your brain’s way of saying: ‘Keep bonding with your social group.’ They’ll keep you safe,” she adds.

Unleashing endorphins

Why is it that we feel so good after laughing so hard that it hurts? How does that make sense? Enter the other major feel-good chemicals in your comedy cocktail: endorphins.

Dr. Albers describes endorphins as natural pain-reduction neurotransmitters. Note the “s.” There are more than 20 different kinds of endorphins in your body. And they’re busy! In addition to relieving pain, endorphins relieve stress and improve your mood.

When you pick yourself up off the floor after a particularly side-splitting joke, trick, wisecrack or prank, you’ll probably feel better — sort of like you do after a workout, a massage or, sometimes, a good cry.

“Not only can increased endorphin levels help reduce pain, anxiety and depression, but they can also boost your self-confidence,” Dr. Albers says.

Keep pranks and jokes positive

Dr. Albers is a fan of a lighthearted joke or prank, but she says it’s important to be thoughtful about how your actions impact others. If you aren’t careful, punchlines can really hurt.

“A well-done joke or prank isn’t about humiliating or hurting,” Dr. Albers stresses.

Here are a few lines Dr. Albers suggests not crossing:

  • Be aware of your audience. Depending on your relationship with your intended target and the setting you choose, the wrong joke or prank might get you in trouble. (Pretending to fire somebody who works for you isn’t funny — and it’s a quick way to land yourself in hot water.)
  • Be inclusive, not exclusive. The goal of a prank or joke is to bring people in on the fun. Laughing at somebody else’s expense isn’t funny. It’s bullying. So, be empathetic, and leave the jokes about who people are in the draft folder.
  • Only make messes you’re willing to clean up. No fooling here: If you’re the one who made the mess, you’re the one who should clean it up! That’s right: Unless you really like cleaning pee up off the bathroom floor, wrapping the toilet seat in cling film is a no-go.
  • Theft and vandalism are still illegal. “It was a joke!” doesn’t hold up in court.
  • Make sure your prank doesn’t risk anybody’s health or safety. Watching somebody wipe out on a slippery floor can be funny … when it’s happening in a movie. In real life, attempts at slapstick comedy can have serious consequences. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If Kevin McCallister did it in any of the Home Alone movies, don’t do it!

LOL for your life

Laughing and enjoying a good joke or prank isn’t a waste of time. It’s crucial to maintaining our physical and mental health. When we play pranks or tell jokes, we provoke laughter. Laughter, in turn, releases oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins — “feel good” chemicals that help us stay healthy and bond with other people.

Just be sure your good time doesn’t come at someone else’s expense. A poorly executed joke or prank can break social bonds, trust and — if you aren’t thoughtful about it — a (not so) funny bone or two.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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