11 Scientific Benefits of Having a Laugh

iStock.com/Petar Chernaev
iStock.com/Petar Chernaev

They say that laughter is "the best medicine," and as it turns out, there is some scientific truth to this assertion. Humor-associated laughter has numerous health benefits, so here are 11 reasons you should laugh it up.

1. Laughter is a sign of good will toward others.

Group of friends laughing in a restaurant
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Laughter may be unique to humans. Why do we do it? According to a 2010 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, laughter and smiling are generally intended as a message of good will. The authors extrapolate that there is a similar function in primates, who use facial expressions with bared teeth to suggest friendliness and sociability. They write, "Because some forms of smiling are voluntary and easily faked, laughter, which requires a more synergetic contraction of the wider musculature, is believed to have evolved in humans to express a secure, safe message to others."

2. Laughter may reduce your blood pressure.

Two girls laughing in a car
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High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most dangerous side effects of stress, as well as a huge risk factor for heart disease and stroke. However, it's hard to be stressed when you're laughing, so researchers have investigated whether laughter can bring blood pressure down. There are more than a few studies that show a reduction of blood pressure after laughter, such as a 2017 study in the Journal of Dental and Medical Research, where 40 patients undergoing hemodialysis listened to CDs of comic shows for 16 30-minute sessions over eight weeks, and saw a decrease in blood pressure.

In 2011 researchers presented results of a three-month-long study at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions. Researchers exposed 79 participants to either a music or laughter therapy. Laughter was stimulated through "playful eye contact" and breathing exercises. Immediately after sessions, the blood pressure readings from the laughers lowered by 7 mmHg—(millimeters of mercury, how the blood pressure readings on a sphygmomanometer are abbreviated). In comparison, music therapy only brought blood pressure down by 6 mmHg.

After three months, the blood pressure readings significantly decreased overall by 5 mmHg among the laughers. People in the comparison group showed no change in blood pressure readings.

3. This had led to a treatment known as laughter yoga.

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The success of laughter studies on blood pressure and other ills has led to a unique kind of treatment known as "laughter yoga."

Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of the Laughter Yoga School, told Medscape, "You don't need any jokes, any humor, or any comedy. You don't even need to be happy. What we do is laugh in a group and initiate laughter as a form of bodily exercise, but when we have eye contact with others, this laughter becomes real and contagious."

Kataria led a study of 200 male and female individuals who participated in laughter yoga sessions for 20 to 30 minutes. The researchers stimulated laughter in the participants for between 45 seconds and one minute, followed by deep breathing and stretching for the duration of the sessions.

Subjects who laughed saw a reduction in their systolic blood pressure of more than 6 mmHg, a significant change from baseline and also significant when compared with a non-laughing control group. Diastolic blood pressure was also significantly reduced. In addition, their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also reduced.

As a result, laughter yoga has gone on to be used as an intervention for a variety of health issues, ranging from stress to dementia.

4. Laughter can reduce anxiety and other negative emotions.

Two guys laughing and shaking hands
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A 1990 study in Psychological Reports looked at the effects of humorous laughter on threat-induced anxiety. Researchers led 53 college students to believe (falsely) that they were going to receive an electric shock after a waiting period.

Subjects in the experiment group listened to a humorous tape while waiting for their shock. The placebo group listened to a non-humorous tape, and the control group did not listen to any tape. The humor group reported that their anxiety decreased during the anticipatory period, and those with the highest self-reported level of sense of humor had the lowest reported anxiety.

Laughter therapy has also been shown to improve anxiety in patients with Parkinson's disease [PDF], reduce anxiety and depression in nursing students, and improve optimism, self-esteem, and depression in menopausal women.

From a general psychological perspective, author Bernard Saper suggests in a paper for Psychiatric Quarterly that the ability to maintain a sense of humor and the ability to laugh can act as positive coping mechanisms to help a person get through difficult times.

5. Laughter is an immune booster.

Mom and boy laughing on couch
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At the beginning of cold and flu season, it may be a good idea to practice some laughter therapy, as several studies have shown the immune boosting power of a chuckle.

In one 2015 study on postpartum mothers in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers tested hand-expressed breast milk for immunoglobulin (IgA, antibodies that play an important role in immune function) before and after laughter therapy.

Twice a week, participants engaged in group "laughter dance routines" and some light breast massage while inducing laughter. Mothers who participated in the laughter therapy saw a small increase in their IgA. However, even a small amount was significant to the researchers, given that the postpartum period is when natural IgA in breast milk declines (it is at its highest level right after delivery, in the earliest, nutrient-dense breast milk known as colostrum).

Another study with college students found that watching funny movies increases salivary IgA (sIgA). Researchers have also found small examples of laughter's ability to increase the body's natural killer cells (NKs), a type of lymphocyte that is easy to test for in the blood. One study in the American Journal of Medical Science, albeit small—a cohort of only 10 male subjects—found significantly increased NK cell activity in the experimental group. Additional studies have shown increases in NK cell activity after laughter therapy or humorous videos, but most of these studies were done on male subjects.

6. Laughter may act as a natural anti-depressant.

woman laughing with dog
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While nobody would recommend laughter in lieu of other treatment for depression, it has shown promise at ameliorating depressed moods. Patients in long-term care facilities often suffer from depression and poor sleep, so a 2017 study in the Korean Journal of Adult Nursing [PDF] tested the effects of laughter therapy on 42 residents of two long-term care hospitals. The results were promising.

The laugher therapy, which the subjects undertook over eight sessions, for 40 minutes twice a week, included "singing funny songs, laughing for diversion, stretching, playing with hands and dance routines, laughing exercises, healthy clapping, and laughing aloud."

The results showed reduced depression and general mood improvement as well as improved sleep in the experiment group compared to the control group.

Another 2015 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that three 60-minute laughter therapy sessions improved the depression and negative mood states of cancer patients.

7. You breathe better after laughing.

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It turns out that a good bout of deep belly laughter can lead to increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption, which are similar to what happens during exercise. While a 2009 study in the International Journal of Humor Research found that these changes only last as long as the laughter itself, if you can laugh like that for 30 minutes to an hour, maybe you can skip the gym.

8. Laughter is good for your cardiovascular system.

women laughing at a movie
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Your lungs aren't the only organ that benefits from a great guffaw. A 2009 study in Medical Hypotheses found powerful benefits to the heart and cardiovascular system.

Study participants watched either a comedy like Saturday Night Live or the bleak opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which is known to increase mental stress. They used a technique called brachial artery reactivity testing (BART), a form of ultrasound that looks at the brachial artery. Participants who watched the stressful movie experienced a 35 percent reduction in flow-mediated vasodilation (FMD, or how blood vessels dilate and contract); sluggish FMD is a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, the group that watched the funny scene saw a 22 percent increase in FMD, comparable to exercise. In short, laughing helped their blood flow better.

The American Heart Association recommends laughter for a healthy heart, adding that research has shown laughter promotes reduced artery inflammation and increased production of HDL, or "good" cholesterol.

9. Laughter calms stress hormones.

man and woman laughing
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Humor, and by extension, laughter, stimulates multiple physiological systems that decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the activation of the dopamine-dispensing reward system of the brain, according to researchers of a 2017 study in Advances in Physiology Education. A 2003 study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that viewing a funny film decreased a wide variety of stress hormones.

10. Social laughter can relieve pain.

Girl with broken arm laughing in doctor office
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Laughter might be as good as some analgesics for pain, something early physicians seemed to understand. In the 14th century, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville used humor to distract patients from the pain of surgery and to help them during recovery.

More modern research has found that participants who watched comedy videos needed less pain medication than those who watched control videos. In a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, over the course of six experiments using extreme cold as a pain-tolerance measure, researchers found that social laughter—laughter done in groups in a social context—elevates pain thresholds. The authors suggest, "These results can best be explained by the action of endorphins released by laughter."

11. Laughing burns calories.

Woman laughing on a running trail.
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As if all of these benefits aren't a good enough reason to giggle every day, a 2014 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that laughter can burn calories. Researchers broke a group of 45 participants into two groups, half of whom watched film clips intended to evoke laughter for approximately 10 minutes, and half who watched film clips unlikely to stimulate laughter. Both groups were attached to a "calorimeter" that measured energy expenditure and heart rate. They determined that those who laughed during their viewing burned up to 10 calories in 10 minutes, as compared to those who did not laugh and did not burn any calories.

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
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As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
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The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
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The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
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Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
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The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

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takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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