Research into laughter reveals that it's a potent drug with the contagious power of a virus, and conveys a slew of benefits for the mind and body.


Neuroscientist Sophie Scott spent 18 years studying laughter. She’s a professor at University College London by day and, on occasion, a standup comedian by night.

“One of the big benefits of laughter is that it feels really good to laugh,” said Scott. “You get a change in the uptake of the naturally circulating endorphins, and those are the body’s painkillers. You get a measurable increase in your ability to tolerate pain.”

Overtime, according to Scott, laughter can decrease the body’s production of cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands into the bloodstream at times of stress. High levels of cortisol have been linked to weight gain and memory loss.

At an emotional level, neuroscientist Scott said, laughter can be a bonding experience among family or coworkers, friends or strangers. “When people laugh it’s a sign that they’re feeling comfortable and relaxed and safe and not exposed,” she said. (

Below are six findings that should keep us wanting to laugh it up. (

Laughter is a potent endorphin releaser. One of the most recent studies on laughter shows that laughing with others releases endorphins in the brain—our homegrown feel-good chemicals—via opioid receptors. Highly addictive opioid drugs, like heroin, also bind to those receptors, suggesting that laughter induces euphoria not unlike a narcotic (minus the obvious drawbacks).

Laughter contagiously forms social bonds. The endorphin effect described above also explains why social laughter is so contagious. Spreading endorphin release through groups promotes a sense of togetherness and safety. Each brain in a social unit is a transmitter of those feelings, which triggers the feel-goods in other brains via laughter. It’s like a game of endorphin dominoes. That’s why when someone starts laughing, others will laugh even if they’re not sure what everyone is laughing about.

Laughter fosters brain connectivity. Not all laughter is the same, and it turns out that decoding a laugh is more challenging than it seems. One study found differences in how we perceive, for example, joyous laughter versus taunting laughter versus tickling laughter, each of which activates connections between different brain regions. What this all amounts to is that laughter fosters rigorous brain-region connectivity that kicks in when we hear a laugh, as our brains work to decipher what sort of communication is coming through.

Laughter is central to relationships. Women laugh about 126% more than their male counterparts, while men seem to instigate laughter the mostand there’s an interesting application of those results to how relationships form and are maintained. Women typically rate a sense of humor as a top-three trait for a potential mate. Men tend to rate women who laugh a lot (i.e. laugh at their jokes) higher than those who don't. It's no surprise, then, that couples who laugh together report having higher-quality relationships. Laughter is a nonnegotiable for all involved.

Laughter has an effect similar to antidepressants. Laughing activates the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the same brain chemical affected by the most common types of antidepressants, SSRIs. It’s not clear from the research how long this effect sticks around, but the burst of brain activity laughing triggers is undoubtedly potent, at least for short periods of time.

Laughter protects your heart. Research has shown that laughter has an anti-inflammatory effect that protects blood vessels and heart muscles from the damaging effects of cardiovascular disease. How this happens isn't entirely understood, but it seems related to lessening the body’s stress response, which is directly linked to increased inflammation. Regular, hearty laughter should probably be part of every heart disease prevention program. (



The cackles can be heard from far beyond the brick walls of the private garden playing host to a Laughter Yoga Atlanta session. On a bright weekend morning, at the height of the steamy Georgia summer, a group of about 40 students is visibly invigorated. At intervals they chant or clap, frolicking in a large open circle while purposely seeking eye-contact with the nearest person – most likely someone they just met.

Welcome to laughter yoga. 

The practice, designed by Indian doctor Madan Kataria in 1995, combines playful group exercises and deep breathing to promote wellness, happiness and lots of laughter.

“It’s called laughter yoga because of the diaphragmatic breathing that takes place when we laugh,” says Laughter Yoga Atlanta director Celeste Greene. “It’s a full inhalation and a full exhalation.”

At first the laughter is simulated, or “voluntary laughter” in yoga-speak, but slowly, as students warm up to each other, it becomes genuine and contagious. “You can react from a laughter place, as opposed to a stress place. How does that sound?” Greene calls out.

A group “Yeah!” quickly follows.

Then Greene demonstrates a new exercise – “traffic laughter.” Students pretend to drive a “laughter powered car.”

“The goal in laughter yoga is to build a daily habit and bring more laughter into your life,” Greene explained. “It could be laughing in traffic and it could be laughing while cleaning the house. The more you laugh, the more you’re able to laugh at whatever life brings.”

In her classes, Greene has witnessed the positive effects this group dynamic can have on a person struggling with anxiety, depression or isolation.

 “Humans do seem to be genuinely unified by laughter.” (

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” 

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice





Patricia Deerwester

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