The Physiological and Psychological Importance of Laughter

Health is one of the disciplines that have vast libraries of research and scholarly work. Such works concern intervention to illnesses, through traditional, modern, regional or other historical methods. While some are sophisticated, others are natural like laughter, as identified by Norman Cousins in the book As Anatomy of an Illness. Since this publication, other related studies have revealed that laughter has physiological and psychological importance.


Laughter is a sophisticated physical reaction to humorous stimuli. It is a natural emotional expression, that is part of the universal language which all humans can recognize (Savage, Lujan, Thipparthi & DiCarlo, 2017). Currently, several studied in biomedicine have linked laughter to psychological, immunological and physiological processes in human (Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013). Such studies began in the 1960s, when Cousins discovered a link between his illness and emotions, and later laughter led to remission of the illness (Roman & Cousins, 1982). Recent studies have found through evidence-based methods that laughter has ramifications to the health outcomes, both in physiology and psychology (Bennett & Lengacher, 2008; Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013; Lebowitz, Suh, Diaz & Emery, 2011; Louie, Brook & Frates, 2016)). Both categories are discussed below.

Physiology of Laughter

Laughter is partly physical through muscular responses. It involves the “contraction and relaxation of facial, chest, abdominal and skeletal muscles, easing muscle tension and spasms that create chronic pain” (Wilson-Barlow, 2015, par.2). The processes that are most visible on a person during laughter are contraction and relaxation of the fifteen facial muscles and the zygomatic major muscles (Wilson-Barlow, 2015). The heart rate increases, the respiration system dilates to increase airflow, but the rate of breathing becomes highly irregular (Savage, Lujan, Thipparthi & DiCarlo, 2017). That is why some people lose breath during laughter. Besides, laughter initiates the release of adrenaline – the fight or flight hormone. That is why the general physiology of laughter related to the impacts of the release of adrenaline. That is an increased heart rate, muscular tension, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Wilson-Barlow (2015) explains that at the end of every laughter, one feels a form of calmness, that occur on a psychological level.

Physiological Importance of Laughter

Laughter boosts immunity in humans and prevents illnesses. According to Chang, Tsai & Hsieh (2013), laughter has an indirect link to improved immunity. This happens through the reduction of stress and an increase in positive emotions, which have a direct link to better health outcomes. The study adds that shared laughter is particularly critical for adolescents, since it gives them a sense of identity, and thus prevents mental health challenges such as depression (Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013). Thus, laughter is a preventive health intervention such as exercise.

Effects of laughter are synonymous to those of aerobic exercise. As mentioned above, laughter involves movement of muscles through relaxation and contraction. Further, the cardiac and respiratory systems change rate during laughing, like during aerobic exercise. Bennett & Lengacher (2008) quotes lay sources that have becomes widely accepted reporting that laughter has an equivalent impact on the blood flow as aerobic exercise. Nevertheless, these assertions are true from a lay representation of the laughing process. That is, laughter leads to changes in cardiac and respiratory rates, and toning of muscles like exercise (Bennett & Lengacher,2008). Louie, Brook & Frates (2016) backs the theory by reporting that laughter is therapy, with equivalent outcomes as yoga therapy.

These findings have been used in the medical fields as a contestant compliment to the other forms of treatment. For instance, some social workers have investigated the use of induced laughter or simulated laughter to treat mental health illnesses (Louie, Brook & Frates, 2016). Others like Chang, Tsai & Hsieh (2013) have investigated the effectiveness of laughter as an immunological strategy. That entails simulation or induction of laughter, such that airflow is regulated for optimal oxygen supply in the blood (Bennett & Lengacher, 2008). While most of the examples given are physiological, laughter has more exciting concepts in psychology.

Psychology of Laughter

From the definition, laughter is psychological, as the interpretation of humorous stimuli is through perception. In a study on critiquing the use of laughter as a tool in medicine, the scholars found that laughter is controlled by the brainstem and the cortex like other emotions (Louie, Brook & Frates, 2016). Besides, Savage, Lujan, Thipparthi & DiCarlo (2017) reports that effects of humor – such as laughter, are mostly cognitive. That is why humorous stimuli are those that are readable by human cognitive abilities. For instance, viewing humorous motion of pictures without sound or listening to a humorous conversation without viewing pictures is likely to cause laughter. Other studies have found that laughter has a significant influence on the levels of stress hormones. For instance, Bennett & Lengacher (2008) explains that laughing reduces a wide variety of stress hormones. That highlights the potential to manipulate laughter through hormones. As a highlight, Louie, Brook & Frates reports that laughter may be “genuine (“spontaneous”), self-induced (“simulated”), stimulated (eg, tickling), induced (ie, via drugs), and pathological” (2016, p.262). Spontaneous is arguably the most common type of laughter.

Psychological Importance of Laughter

Studies have reported that laughter affects “mood states, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and depression” (Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013, p.661). Further, their study found that laughter fosters positive emotions. Consequently, positive emotions counteract depression and boost self-esteem and self-efficacy. The Laughing Qigong Program (LQP) on adolescents revealed that exposure to laughter improves cognitive skills through the “stress-moderator theory” (Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013, p.665). That is, people who laugh more find humorous stimuli straightforwardly, and thus are mostly happy on in positive moods.

In the same study, Chang, Tsai & Hsieh (2013) explains that laughter is contagious. That way, its benefits which are experienced at an individual level, are shared in groups. In the context of adolescents, lighting together indicates inclusion at a critical developmental age, when they are searching for social identity (Chang, Tsai & Hsieh, 2013, p.665). Thus, shared laugh elevates individual self-esteem since they feel complete and socially accepted.


So far, laughter reveals many exciting benefits, physiologically and psychologically. It improves the individuals’ immunity, tunes, muscles and other physiological systems, boosts mood, self-esteem, and counteracts on depression. The critical question that begs evaluation from the current findings is whether laughter deserves recognition as a tool for physicians to use in treating illnesses. In that perspective, healthcare scholars and professionals may consider nullifying Cousins assertions that laughter utterly overcame his illness through evidence-based methods. Besides, there is a need for future research to draw a line between therapeutic laughter and that which can happen inappropriately to deteriorate the health outcomes of patients.



Bennett, M., & Lengacher, C. (2008). Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III. Laughter and Health Outcomes. Evidence-Based Complementary And Alternative Medicine, 5(1), 37-40. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nem041

Chang, C., Tsai, G., & Hsieh, C. (2013). Psychological, immunological and physiological effects of a Laughing Qigong Program (LQP) on adolescents. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 21(6), 660-668. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2013.09.004

Lebowitz, K., Suh, S., Diaz, P., & Emery, C. (2011). Effects of humor and laughter on psychological functioning, quality of life, health status, and pulmonary functioning among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A preliminary investigation. Heart & Lung, 40(4), 310-319. doi: 10.1016/j.hrtlng.2010.07.010

Louie, D., Brook, K., & Frates, E. (2016). The Laughter Prescription. American Journal Of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(4), 262-267. doi: 10.1177/1559827614550279

Roman, L., & Cousins, N. (1982). Anatomy of an illness. Los Angeles: Hamner/Gershwin Productions.

Wilson-Barlow, L. (2015). The Physiological Effects of Laughter – Find a Psychologist. Retrieved 9 July 2020, from