Laughter: It’s no joke

Nicole Posont , Editor-in-Chief


Why did the chicken cross the road? Knock, knock! Who’s there? People still laugh at these recognizable jokes, and that laughter may benefit them in ways that they don’t even realize. 

Whether through sarcasm or “dad” jokes, humor is worked into the world, changing human physiology and psychology in subtle yet substantial ways. 

What’s behind that curious and infectious sound? According to Dr. John Houlihan in “Different Jokes for Different Folks”, the average person laughs 15 times a day.

That innate funny noise people make is ultimately just a reaction. The body is programmed to laugh at something it finds amusing, similar to how it’s programmed to scream at something terrifying. 

 “A laugh is the physical expression of something that triggers the brain to say that this is really funny enough to provide some sort of expulsion of air,” psychoneuroimmunologist and professor Dr. Lee Berk from Loma Linda University said in his interview “Gelotology with Dr. Lee Berk” with Ailie Ward. 

However, the signals in the brain that trigger laughter don’t just cause the sound of a giggle or snort. 

Other signals are sent in the brain. “It can mitigate the levels of stress hormones- adrenaline and cortisol,” licensed clinical professional counselor Aili Wachtel said. “It can boost neurotransmitters that make us feel good.”

Laughter has even proven to positively affect the body over time. It has been shown that the more a person laughs, the more the body is resistant to infections ranging from the common cold to cancer. 

According to Dr. Brian Luke Seaward from The Paramount Wellness Institute in “Humor’s Healing Potential”, “Humor even has long- term effects that strengthen our immune system.”

Not only does a good chuckle strengthen the immune system, but it has also been shown to fight pain. The hormones released by the brain such as adrenaline and cortisol don’t just make people feel good, they are also known to temporarily relieve discomfort.

In 1988, Berk was completing a study on exercise when Norman Cousins, a man with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that can cause severe back pain, showed that watching an old comedy duo called “Laurel and Hardy” improved his symptoms.

 “He was able to sleep for about three to four hours without pain,” Berk said. 

Aside from the physical benefits, laughter can also elevate a person’s emotional state. 

“Over a longer period of time I’ve noticed that [patients] can manage stress more effectively,” licensed clinical social worker Olena Hartline said. “They report decreased distressing thoughts and feelings and present with an overall positive effect.” 

Cracking a joke to lighten the mood is not a new concept. It’s a tactic used by healthcare professionals on a daily basis. 

“I have worked with countless students who were quite visibly upset early on, but were smiling and laughing by the end of our session, which allowed them to leave my office and carry on with the rest of their day with a positive outlook,” North social worker Ashlee Wright said. 

In social situations, this positive impact on mood can play into how people interact with others. The bonds made through laughter are built into human social nature and lead to strong connections. 

“Most laughter occurs as part of interaction, and it’s important to note that the benefits that we’re talking about extend to laughing with someone, not at someone,” Wachtel said. 

Humor also has been shown to make people feel more comfortable, especially those with mental health conditions. 

“Laughter may decrease any social anxiety that people may be experiencing in large groups,” Hartline said. 

Seaward concurs. “In the rehabilitation of persons recovering from substance addictions, humor can help them express negative emotions in a positive light, thus relieving feelings of hopelessness and despair,” Seaward said. 

Laughter doesn’t only help with substance abuse and addiction, however. Humor can help prevent mental health from declining or help those who struggle with anxiety or depression. 

“Anecdotally, in my experience, clients who naturally laugh a lot- who find humor all around them in their daily lives- are more resilient than those who don’t,” Wachtel said. 

Why people find anything from sarcasm to corny jokes funny is debatable. 

“An incongruity of what is expected and what we stumble into,” Berk said.” It’s that incongruity of what you are anticipating is going to be that does not occur that causes you to trip on yourself.” 

In other words, the joke ended in a way that was surprising. People find humor in what is unexpected. 

From slapstick to prop comedy, people have always found a way to make everyone laugh. Take Netflix’s ever-growing collection of comedy specials. Not only has the collection of stand-up specials increased dramatically, but Netflix claims that over 75 million subscribers, over half of their customers, watched a stand-up special within the last year. 

“Seeking positive joyful media helps me to see the hope and joy in every situation and to be able to encourage others to find it too,” Catalyst Coordinator and hospital liaison Jill Fletcher said. 

Whether people chortle and snort or just giggle, laughter is necessary.  

“A genuine sense of humor is essential for coping with life,” Fletcher said.