“I think laughter is everything. I need it like water, sun and sleep,” said Melissa Sanderson, 50, of Columbia. “I feel elated, stress-relieved, alive … and, if it’s really good, my cheeks are sore.”
Chances are, many of your most joyous moments have involved laughter. Whether it’s howling with a group of friends after a bout of hilarity or snickering to yourself when you are amused, there’s something special about the feeling you get after a deep belly laugh that brings tears to your eyes.
But did you know that laughter didn’t begin as a reaction to humor? Research suggests that laughter started as a survival tool in animals as a way to communicate that the group was safe from harm.
Harrison Brookie agreed that laughter isn’t always about the joke. As founder and executive director of Greenville’s Alchemy Comedy Theater, Brookie has overseen more than 3,000 weekly improv, stand-up and sketch comedy shows at Coffee Underground since 2011.
“Laughter is interesting in that it only happens in social animals like gorillas, dogs and humans. It’s the opposite of fear. When you laugh, you are letting others know that it’s safe – you can be yourself here,” he said, adding that it’s also about social connection. “There’s something inherently bonding about the hobby of comedy. Laughter connects us to each other.”
And while there is no way to know if someone is actually laughing out loud when texting LOL, it would certainly benefit their health if they were. Certified laughter yoga instructor Linda Gillen has been helping people intentionally chuckle for eight years and says laughter improves your physical, emotional and mental well-being.
“Just 10 to 15 minutes of laughter can provide measurable changes in the body,” she shared. “When you laugh, you breathe in more oxygen for your entire body and brain. It relaxes the muscles, lowers the stress hormone – cortisol – and stimulates your lymph nodes, which improves your immune system.”
Gillen’s interest in laughter yoga was sparked after participating in a session at a conference and noticing the benefits. She remembers thinking, “Oh wow. I feel so much better.”
Laughter yoga originated in India in 1995 and includes movement and breathing activities to promote intentional laughter. Participants laugh, sing, dance, clap and stomp.
Both natural and intentional laughter produce the same positive mental and physical responses. That’s right. Your body can’t tell the difference.
“When you laugh, whether it’s spontaneous or intentional, you still get the benefits. You get those endorphins which are like well-being neurotransmitters in your body. They are natural painkillers and stress fighters,” Gillen said.
The increased intake of oxygen caused by laughter stimulates your organs and can even improve your cardiovascular health by increasing blood flow to the heart. Laughter also can immediately improve your mood by increasing the endorphins released by your brain. Long-term, it can decrease anxiety and depression and help regulate your body’s emotional response.
“Even laughing for 30 seconds can make your body go ‘wow’ because you are releasing tension,” Gillen added.
And we all know that laughter can be contagious. Just hearing someone laugh can make you start to chuckle – and your laughter will create more laughter.
So what happens if you don’t laugh enough? It can negatively affect your immune system.
“Studies have shown that people who don’t laugh have lower levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone. This is linked to stress, depression and anxiety, even cardiac stress and schizophrenia because your woes are absorbed into the body rather than being let go,” said Gillen.
Indeed, there’s no question that laughter really is good medicine. But maybe laughter’s real superpower is simply that it’s fun.
“In my 80 years, what makes me laugh is getting together with family or friends and recalling some of the silly things that happened in our past. To me, laughter is a kind of letting go. I think it is fun to laugh with others. And who doesn’t like fun?” shared Bob Connor of Meridian, Mississippi.
By Amy Connor