THE BLOG
02/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Laughter is Good for the Body, Mind and Social Relationships

Laughter is a complex brain/body catharsis, if you will, that is cleansing and enlivening mentally, physically, emotionally and socially. Let's face it, we all love the guy who makes us laugh. A good laugh helps us to let go, to feel more alive inside and bonded with other people. On the physical level, laughter relaxes our muscles, reduces at least four hormones associated with the stress response, epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone, strengthens our immune system, is great cardiac conditioning like "inner jogging" and lowers blood pressure. It also helps respiration, as frequent belly laughter empties your lungs of more air than it takes in resulting in a cleansing effect similar to deep breathing which is especially beneficial for patient's who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments.

But researchers are even more riveted by laughter's many social benefits, the primary one being bringing people together and creating a bond.

• Laughter plays a big role in mating. Men like women who laugh heartily in their presence.
• Both sexes laugh a lot, but females laugh more--126 percent more than their male counterparts. Men are more laugh-getters.
• The laughter of the female is the critical index of a healthy relationship.
• Laughter in relationships declines dramatically as people age.
• Like yawning, laughter is contagious; the laughter of others is irresistible.
• One of the best ways to stimulate laughter -- and probably the most ancient and even animal way -- is by tickling. Tickling is inherently social; we can't tickle ourselves. We tickle to get a response. Or to play, to entice the ticklee to turn around and become the tickler.
• Tickling is probably at the root of all play and it is inherently reciprocal, a give-and-take. Not to mention it triggers sexual excitation in adults.
• But tickling, as well as touch in general, declines dramatically in middle age. People begin a gradual "tactile disengagement," according to researcher Dr. Robert Provine. Tickle, touch, and play, so critically intertwined and important to our over all sense of joy and well being, all go into retreat as we get older.

There is much interest among researchers as to just what makes people laugh, following are three primary theories.

The superiority theory comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else's mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it.

The relief theory is the basis for a device movie-makers use to build suspense and sustain interest. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension as much as possible and then breaks it, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion then proceed to build it up again. Day to day life uses laughter for relief in a similar way. According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope more effectively with stressful situations. "The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress."

The incongruity theory according to researcher Thomas Veatch ,says a joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what's going to happen next and how it's going to end. That anticipation is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We're holding two thoughts at the same time and they don't match up, so rather than bend our brains to get them to go together, we shrug it off, laugh and let it go.
Laughter is part of what makes us human and allows us to feel alive and connected. That guy who makes us laugh, is performing an ancient and critically important social function, no wonder we appreciate him.