Why Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine

We know that it feels good to laugh, and we associate laughter with fun, happiness, and positive energy.  But, from the scientific standpoint, laughing has been clinically proven to have a positive effect on physical, emotional, and social health and well-being. While scientists have studied brain activity in the emotional states of fear, anger, and depression for many years, the exploration of neural activity stimulated by laughter and smiling has exploded over the last decade or so.

Research indicates that simply smiling at a friend or co-worker or even just anticipating laughter that follows a joke can reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine and boost the kinds of hormones that lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. The interaction between the brain, emotional behavior, and the immune system suggest that the mere act of seeking out opportunities to laugh and smile have a significantly positive impact on the brain and body.

For starters, the feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin — are all released when you smile.  This not only relaxes your body but also lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. Also, many of today’s pharmaceutical anti-depressants also influence the levels of serotonin in your brain. When we smile, the brain releases a shot of serotonin – our natural anti-depressant only without the office visit, prescription, or negative side effects.

When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?

Studies show that engaging the diaphragm with ANY type of deep breathing – especially hearty belly-laughing – immediately engages the parasympathetic nervous system and sets off a chain of events throughout the body. The parasympathetic nervous system directs all of the other body systems to slow down so the stress hormones can take a break and the “feel good” chemicals can take over. Once all of that happens, blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, and the entire body gains the benefits as happiness replaces anxiety and stress. It’s the perfect domino effect.

Emotional Contagion

Have you ever noticed that television sitcoms use laugh tracks? The reason for this is – you guessed it – neuroscience. The scientific term is emotional contagion. We’ve known for some time that people tend to mimic behavior, gestures, body language in conversations. Studies have shown that people can “catch” negative emotions and the corresponding stress hormones when interacting with someone experiencing fear, stress, or anxiety.

In fact, we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people. Laughter is an emotional response that makes us feel closer, more trusting, more connected.

Likewise, merely seeing someone else laugh or smile triggers a corresponding emotional response and the release of the good chemicals. Neuroscientists attribute this to mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons are a subset of brain cells that fire when we perform an action as well as when we see others performing a particular action. More recent research has explored mirror neurons as the psychological mechanism that enables us to understand the thoughts, actions, and intentions of others by allowing us to “feel” another’s emotions rather than just observe them. To date, there are no widely accepted studies that confirm or explain how mirror neuron activity supports cognition.  However, we do know that smiling and laughter are empathetic, validating social experiences that makes us feel closer to one another.  In fact, we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people. Laughter is an emotional response that makes us feel closer, more trusting, more connected.

Try it… smile at a bunch of people today and pay attention to how they respond. It’s almost impossible not to smile back. Think about that – when you smile at someone – that one second of positive communication which costs absolutely nothing requires no preparation, and very little energy, delivers huge rewards.

Mental benefits aside, laughing and smiling can actually make you live longer. Remember all of those negative ways that stress physically impacts the body? Laughter and smiling are on the opposite end of the spectrum and counteract stress. Both laughter and smiling are shown to relax the body by reducing heart rate and blood pressure. When the body can relax, the white blood cell count increases enabling the immune system to operate more efficiently. Cortisol levels decrease and let the good chemicals balance your mood into a state of well-being. Laughter also induces the release of endorphins which increases your pain threshold and reduces the pain you feel.

If all of that isn’t enough, you’re actually better-looking when you smile — and people treat you differently. Smiling makes you appear more attractive, reliable, relaxed, sincere, and trustworthy.

The next time you make someone else laugh or smile, you’ll be creating a symbiotic relationship that allows both of you to release feel-good chemicals in your brain, activate reward centers, make you both more attractive, and increase the chances of you both living longer, healthier lives.

That is something to smile about.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. One more thought, Melissa — I always smile at the moms (and the dads) with small babies when I’m out shopping. I love seeing their kids, and usually the parent is tickled to know that someone else thinks their child is cute / handsome / adorable — whatever. Recently a mom said something that cracked me up, something close to “Yes, it’s amazing what you can find over in Aisle 3, although I think I got the last one of these.”

    Now, I sometimes use that with the moms I see … and they grin. Gotta laugh, Melissa; life is too short not to!

  2. And you are so right, as you know, Melissa! I spent the day training at a company on American gramar, and we laughed all day long. Of course, we had to, because this is one of the most boring topics imaginable. But I could see everybody having a wonderful time and learning all through the day.

    • Laughing and smiling make everything better, but knowing that your brain actually works better?? That’s gold! Thanks for taking the time to read and share, Susan!

  3. Oh, how I love this one on all the benefits of laughing and smiling, Melissa! Yes! This is part of why I stand at an intersection every Wednesday from 5 pm to 6 pm holding a sign that says “LOVE”, smile, and wave at all the folks driving/walking through that intersection. Creating an emotional contagion of joy for myself and many others! This continues to be such a blast-the four of us standing with our signs often laugh. We’ve only received four finger flip offs-one from a man driving and the woman sitting next to him smiled broadly and waved enthusiastically. We all laughed at the stark contract of reactions from these two individuals who sat right next to each other….. And as my son reminds me, the angry finger flippers need the smiles/love the most…. Great post! Thank you for bringing the Good Stuff to all of us!

    • I need to meet your son, Laura! He’s definitely right about the people who need smiles the most. When I was in the classroom, I always thought about those kids that challenged me the most. The ones who tried their best to push me away… They were the ones who needed kindness and love the most.
      Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. As always, I appreciate you!