We all have those people in our lives. The ones who laugh without abandon. Who come in with the punchline when you didn’t even see the joke coming.
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Sure, they’re fun to be around, but it turns out they can reap in some serious health benefits with those one-liners. And you can get in on that action, too.
Whether you’re into the corny “dad jokes” (Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.) or you’re a little more high-brow in your comedy, letting out the chuckles and guffaws can do your mind (and body) a lot of good.
And, so, knock, knock…
Well, not Dr. Who. But health psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD, who we talked with to help understand the health benefits of a case of the giggles.
Dr. Tworek says that many of us are living our lives on the edge, and not in a fun way.
“There’s a lot of literature that shows that Americans these days are more or less living in a ‘fight or flight’ response,” Dr. Tworek says. “Evolutionarily, that’s not what we’re made to do. Fight or flight is our natural stress response that allows us to run away from a saber-toothed tiger. It’s supposed to be short-lived. But the stress that many of us are living with day to day is triggering that response continually.”
That fight-or-flight mentality is the work of your sympathetic nervous system. Its job is to swoop in in a dangerous situation and psych you up to keep you safe. Your breathing gets shallow, your heart pounds and your pupils dilate. Researchers say that long-term activation of your stress system has serious health implications, like an increased risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer and a variety of other illnesses.
On the opposite side of the equation is your parasympathetic nervous system, which is where your “chill mood” comes from. It’s also called the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” response. When you’re living on parasympathetic nervous system vibes, your body slows its roll. Your heart rate lowers and you breathe more easily.
Your parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear when your body knows you’re not in danger and that it can safely lower its guard. Things like deep breathing, mild exercise and, yes, laughter, can cue your nerves to calm themselves and give your fight-or-flight response a much-needed break.
Activating your parasympathetic nervous system through laughter can be a boon for your whole body, Dr. Tworek says. (Trust us, the laugh lines will be well worth it!)
Sharing fun times and laughs with friends or family (or even on your own, watching a funny movie or ridiculous cat videos or whatever tickles your funny bone) lowers your stress levels.
“Letting out a good laugh makes you feel more relaxed because it disarms your nervous system,” Dr. Tworek says. “If you think about a moment when you were finding humor in life, it can be like nothing else mattered but that genuine joy that you were feeling.”
Don’t we all need that sometimes?
It’s one of the top traits people cite when talking about a prospective partner — a good sense of humor.
And there’s a reason for that. Humans are social creatures, and sharing good times is one way we find community.
“Humor and laughter naturally create bonds between us,” Dr. Tworek says. “Say you’re meeting someone new. If you can throw in a joke and make them laugh it’s like, ‘OK, we get each other,’ and you start to feel like you can be more your authentic self with them.”
When you LOL (in real life, not those lazy “LOLs” you typed out when you didn’t know how else to respond), you bring in heaps of extra oxygen, which decreases your heart rate and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system.
“When we get all this oxygen to our organs, our heart rate decreases, brain fog can dissipate,” Dr. Tworek explains. “It’s the opposite of the stress response. Increased oxygen can help you think more clearly and just allow your body to let go.”
Early research suggests laughter can decrease stress hormones, reduce artery inflammation and increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol.
Here are three ways in which laughter can give you a healthier heart:
Sure, a good case of the giggles can boost your mood, but to get the full effects of laughter, it’s more about lightening your overall mood than adding “laugh” to your to-do list. Think about laughter as a lifestyle rather than a prescription.
Even just taking a moment to reflect on things that bring you joy can be a good place to start, Dr. Tworek suggests.
“When someone’s in a funk, one exercise I like to recommend is to just think back to something that usually would make you smile,” Dr. Tworek says. “For some people, it’s a song. For some people, it’s a walk around the block or being out in the sunlight.”
Think about something that would normally make you smile or laugh, and engage with that thought purposefully for a few minutes. Imagining a happy scenario can help relax your mind and body, and for a more complete effect, make the time to do things that make you happy, too.
“We call that ‘behavioral activation.’ It means planning and scheduling things for yourself that you normally would enjoy,” Dr. Tworek explains. “Sometimes, when we’re stressed, it can feel like we don’t have time for pleasure. We put our happiness at the bottom of the list. But it’s doing things we enjoy that will relieve the stress more than completing that long list of things we feel we have to do.”
Habits like regular self-care, exercise and meditation can have similar effects on your parasympathetic nervous system and set the stage so that when something funny happens, you’ll be in a laughing kind of mood.
Laughing at a joke or cracking up when you see a dog in a funny costume is one thing. Consistently shrugging off other emotions and using humor as a mask is another, Dr. Tworek cautions.
“Humor can be really helpful when it comes to coping with difficult situations or getting through a tough time,” Dr. Tworek notes. “But, on the other hand, if you find that cracking jokes is your default and that you’re always turning to humor, rather than really processing how you’re feeling, it’s important to reflect on that.”
Similarly, laughing at others’ expense and self-deprecating laughter aren’t going to give you the same chill vibes, so best to keep your comedy on the up-and-up.
Laughter truly can be the best medicine, and incorporating more lightheartedness into your life can give your nervous system a break.
And the next time you’re feeling stressed, go to a house of mirrors. It’s a really good place to reflect.
(That’s a joke. Go ahead and laugh. It’s good for you.)