Why is laughter contagious? Plus 7 ways to lighten up your day

Mental Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Aug 12, 2020

Have you ever bonded with someone you don’t know over something funny? Or perhaps become closer with someone after a few good laughs? 

Let’s dive into what makes laughter so contagious — and so important in our day-to-day lives and relationships.

The contagious effect of laughter

Research has shown that the critical laughter trigger for most people is not necessarily a joke or a funny movie, but rather another person. 

We innately know that laughter is the shortest distance between two people, but there’s an anthropological reason why laughter is contagious. One study suggests that laughter and humor are genetically built-in, and that humor, historically, has functioned as a social glue and is even thought to have existed before humans could speak as a way to strengthen bonds.

There’s also a physiological reason why laughter is contagious. The sound of a chuckle triggers regions in the premotor cortical region of your brain — or what I like to call the front — which is involved with moving facial muscles to correspond with sound. 

Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the University College London said that, “We’ve known for some time that when we are talking to someone, we often mirror their behavior, copying the words the use and mimicking their gestures. Now we’ve shown that the same appears to apply to laughter, too — at least at the level of the brain.” 

The benefits of a good belly laugh 

There are many benefits to a belly laugh, including enhancing oxygen intake which stimulates the lungs, heart and muscles and increases the release of endorphins (the “happy hormone”), thus boosting the immune system. It also relieves tension and stress, decreases depression and anxiety, and can even increase productivity. Sign me up! 

But wait, you thought that was it? No, that’s not all, folks. A good punch line kicker can have a big effect on your ticker. See what I did there? 

A study done by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore found that laughter, plus an active sense of humor, can help guard you against a heart attack.

Michael Miller, MD, notes that the study “has recently shown for the first time that laughter is linked to healthy functioning of blood vessels. The old saying that laughter is the best medicine definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart.”

He added, “We don’t know yet why laughing protects the heart; but we know mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.”

Dr. Miller said his study showed that people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations. They laughed less, he said, and generally displayed more anger and hostility. I think it’s time those people had a heart to heart, don’t you? 

Related: 19 quick and easy mood-boosting activities

How to laugh more

Alright, now that we have the technical stuff out of the way, let’s talk about how to have more laughs. If you are lacking, here are some life changing tips: 

  1. Laugh at yourself! It’s so easy to take yourself too seriously, but where’s the fun in that? Like I mentioned earlier, I think it’s hilarious when people lovingly poke fun at me because I don’t always take myself seriously. 
  2. Fake it ‘till you make it. If you are having a down day, the simple act of smiling and even forcing a giggle can help turn your day around. Seriously! Try it right now.
  3. Play up the pun. My family is the master of puns. We have text chains dedicated to puns. They are so silly — but so much fun. And puns really get your creativity juices flowing. Orange you glad I’m telling you about this? I beet you are. Okay, lettuce move on.
  4. Take a laughter yoga class. These really exist, and I’ve seen them in action. I love yoga and laughing, so I can’t think of a better combination. No really, I don’t think a HIIT laughter class would be such a hit.
  5. Stroll down memory lane. I have some pretty hilarious pictures of myself from when I was younger with a frizzy side ponytail, big globe earrings and the most unmatching outfit you’ll ever see. Bust out the old family photos, give yourself a good chuckle and perhaps be grateful your fashion sense has (maybe) improved. 
  6. Let a preschooler explain something to you. I’m telling you — kids say the silliest things. My child tried for a good 10 minutes to convince me why a “cookie picnic” where we all “eat cookies as fast as we can” was the best idea ever. He’s not wrong!
  7. Channel your inner child. Did you know that the average kindergarten student laughs 300 times a day, compared to the average adult who only laughs 17 times a day? It’s true. I can say “potato” in a funny voice and my kid will crack up for minutes. So, go back to the days of more belly laughs, and try laughing at something your 9-year-old self would have found funny. 

Happy giggles, everyone! 

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