From brightening your mood to lowering your stress levels—even sharpening your memory—research suggests that lots of clowning around is one of the keys to a happy, healthy life.
Your facial muscles are hardwired to your brain’s emotion centers. And when you laugh, these happy-time brain regions light up and trigger the release of pain-blocking chemicals called endorphins, shows a study from Oxford University. Thanks to endorphins, people who chuckled at a funny video could withstand 10 percent more pain (given in the form of an ice-cold arm sleeve) than people who hadn’t laughed.
At the same time they’re slashing your response to pain, endorphins also up your brain’s quantity of the hormone dopamine. (This is the same reward chemical that floods your noodle during pleasurable experiences like sex.) Research from Loma Linda University in California demonstrates that these laughter-induced dopamine hormones have the power to instantly lower your stress levels and lift your mood.
The stress-busting power of laughter comes with an additional benefit: stronger immune function. The Loma Linda researchers say dopamine seems to increase the activity of your body’s natural killer (NK) cells. Their name may sound freaky, but NK cells are actually one of your immune system’s primary weapons against sickness and disease. Low NK activity has been linked to higher rates of illness and worse outcomes among cancer and HIV patients. By boosting your body’s NK activity, laughter could theoretically improve your health and help keep you disease free, the Loma Linda study team suggests.
More research from Loma Linda shows laughter may also sharpen your memory and improve higher-level cognitive tasks like planning and lucid thinking. And not just a little. People who watched 20 minutes of America’s Funniest Home Videos scored about twice as high on a memory test compared to people who had spent that time sitting quietly. The results were similar when it came to learning new information. How is that possible? Mirthful laughter (the kind you feel deep in your gut, not the fake chuckles you conjure in response to someone's not-so-funny joke) triggers “high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations.”
These gamma waves are like a workout for your brain, the study authors say. And by workout, they mean something that makes your mind stronger rather than tiring it out. Gamma waves also tend to spike among people who meditate, a practice research has linked to lower stress levels, improved mood, and other laughter-like brain benefits. Dig the idea of meditation but just can’t seem to get into it? More belly laughs may be a worthy substitute, the research suggests.
Grin and Bear It
Unless you’re trying to hide something, your face reflects your feelings. But research from the University of Kansas shows the reverse is also true: Changing your face can influence your emotions. The KU study team had people hold chopsticks in their mouths, which forced the study participants’ lips to take the shape of a smile. Compared to people without chopstick-stuffed faces, the artificial smilers enjoyed lower stress levels and brighter moods, the study authors found. So the next time you feel overwhelmed (and don’t have any cat gifs handy), smile. Your friends and coworkers might think you’re losing it, but you’ll be happier and stress-free.