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11 Scientific Benefits of Having a Laugh

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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.

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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. IT MAY REDUCE YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE.

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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 HAS 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."

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.

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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 AS AN IMMUNE BOOSTER.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

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