Published in Atlas Magazine
By Alexandra Fileccia
Before Jordan Perry, president of the comedy troupe Jimmy’s Traveling All-Stars, walks on stage, he takes a deep breath and clears his mind. He gets into the character of his first skit. The audience roars with laughter. Typically when you are laughing, you are reacting to humor or comedy. For Perry, laughter is a way to feel good. Though the purpose of laughter is not to improve your health, there are some side effects that are conducive to your health.
Laughter is a major combatant to stress. When you are stressed, you release hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Cortisol diverts energy from other functions in the body, such as the immune system, in order to use and conserve it for the stress stimulus. Laughter, which releases endorphins, suppresses stress hormones. When stress hormones are reduced, it allows for an improvement in immune functions because cortisol is no longer deterring the energy that the system needs. Studies have shown that women who are characterized as optimistic see less cancer growth because they are able to laugh and make light of their situation, which in turn optimizes their immune system and creates more antibodies.
When you have a really good, deep laugh, your whole body is involved. Your head may tilt back, arms swing, and stomach muscles contract. Some people laugh until they are rolling around on the ground, some even cry. These are all responses to the hearty, belly laugh. During intense bouts of laughter, your heart rate significantly increases, mirroring what happens during exercise. William F. Fry, humor research pioneer who experimented with heart rate and laughter, noted that one minute of a strong, jovial laughter produced the same heart rate as ten minutes of rowing on an exercise machine. Intense laughter can result in muscle soreness, similar to the sore feeling after a heavy workout. However after laughing, your heart rate returns to a relaxed state faster than it does after exercising. Robert R. Provine, psychology professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says laughter can be a gentle form of exercise though the calorie cost has not been determined yet.
Laughing also improves your mental health, mostly due to the positive emotions associated with laughter. It serves as a distraction from anything negative in your life. Humor researcher Rod A. Martin says laughter is a coping mechanism. The positive emotions tied to laughter temporarily replace those of anxiety, depression, or anger. This is why people sometimes laugh at inappropriate times or break out in bouts of nervous laughter. It is a way to emotionally deal things that make us uncomfortable—a defense mechanism.
Laughing is contagious; it’s part of human nature. When a person sees laughter, their instinct response is to laugh as well. “The neural mechanism responsible for laugh epidemics replicates behavior that it detects, producing a behavioral chain reaction,” says Provine in his novel Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. The contagiousness is one way laughing strengthens relationships. People who laugh together form a certain connection and comfort. Laughter can diminish stress in social situations, which enhances social interactions. “I like to try and make people laugh,” Perry says, “because I believe laughter brings us together.”