As a breathwork guide, I encourage people to let go and get weird, to express themselves non verbally, through shrieks, wails, yells, howls—and laughter. I learned this from my teachers, and am seeing forced laughter throughout a variety of modalities these days, including in Western medicine. Why is laughter so important to our wellbeing? How can it make us happier and healthier? Read on.
Laughter reduces stress and fatigue.
My father, Dr. Thomas Beckner, who is a recently retired internist and geriatrician, tells me: “For starters, laughter is important because it makes you feel good. From there we also know that it has specific health benefits, such as the reduction of cortisol levels. We need cortisol as part of our flight or fight response, but extended elevated cortisol levels can be harmful, leading to increased risks of diabetes, hypertension, sleep disruption, and other significant medical issues.
According to Seattle-based internist Dr. Carrie A. Horwitch, a certified Laughter Leader (no joke) who is trained to lead therapeutic laughter in groups, says that in addition to the cortisol effect, laughter also improves oxidative stress and increases levels of endorphins, as it combines breath and exercise.
Laughter is easy and it’s free.
“Laughter is the most inexpensive and most effective wonder drug. Laughter is a universal medicine,” said Nobel Prize-winning writer and mathematician Bertrand Russell.
Don’t feel like laughing? Force it. Our minds don’t know the difference, so we can still reap the rewards.
Laughter gives us permission to mess up and still feel safe.
For Marina Trejo, a New York-based movement facilitator with a gift for shaping mindsets as much as physical bodies, “laughter is your body making sound in response to something or someone that strikes your cognition as obvious, exaggerated or shameful. Maybe you didn't allow yourself to be, see or hear something when you experienced it yourself. Laughter gives you permission and allows for failure in a way that erupts in sound. Even the thought of it is funny as it’s a soundful resonance that is actually an exhale telling your body to release that uncomfortableness. Laughter is your body's way to safely exhale when your nervous system has been taught to hold and control."
Laughter is the most inexpensive and most effective wonder drug. Laughter is a universal medicine. –Bertrand Russell, Nobel Prize-winning writer and mathematician
Laughter releases pain by moving energy.
Laughter encourages vulnerability and releases tension in our physical, mental and emotional bodies. Stimulating and/or simulating laughter or other responses can act as a mirror of a person’s strength and also as a release.
According to Trejo, “Both laughing and smiling ask your body to be vulnerable and to draw a line in the sand. You don't mind being noticed though because there is authenticity to what you find funny or amusing. Others may question it, but your body and your narrative recognize it as a release where codified language can fail.”
Breathwork teacher David Elliott shares: “Sometimes it may take a little humor to help a person in pain to be willing to let go of the story a bit and help them find how much energy and emotion can be released as deep belly laughs lift up the trauma and melt the tears with laughter and the choice to be free of the old story. When we get stuck in a place of sadness and depression it can take a lot to get that energy moving. That can be where I have a person let out a silly goofy laugh that can be fake - it’s just the willingness to be silly and let go that helps the energy, the emotion move.”
Laughter sends happy signals to our brains.
Psychologist Dr. Anna Roth, an executive coach for women business leaders who are spiritually inclined, says that “laughter and smiling are important because when we smile the muscular make-up of a smile signals to our brain that all is well.”
Celebrated yoga instructor and humanitarian Gurmukh, says, “I think laughter is probably the most important thing. One thing is if the lips go up, up, up the meridians connect to the part of your brain, that's a happy brain.
“I literally breathe better after I laugh or smile and can actually feel my heart,” says Marina Trejo.
Laughter creates connection.
“It's connecting, co-regulating and bonding to laugh together," says Roth. "We haven't had enough laughter these pandemic years. We are in a laugher debt. Time to collect!”
In the early 1990’s, the late Robert Provine, a neuroscientist, psychology professor and the world’s leading scientific authority on laughter, and his team of graduate students did a rogue deep dive into situational laughter (in bars, shopping malls and other public spaces). The throughline of their research as published in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation? That laughter is “a social signal that bonds people”. He also found that “laughter, of the derisive kind, can be a means of excluding people.” At any rate, laughter is a “universal, preverbal means of communication,” inherently social and therefore also a means of connection.
“When I was in medical practice as an internist and geriatrician,” says Beckner, “I used humor to try to get patients to "lighten up" and see that, in many cases, their problems were not as serious as they might have thought they were. Often, this would lead to a positive discussion about one's problems and the possible solutions that might be available. Once we were able to connect on that level, patients would tend to worry less which then led to a greater chance of well-being, both immediately and longer term.”
Laughter sparks joy—and peace.
Elliott says: “I’ve seen many healthy benefits from laughter yoga and the simple act of just laughing and laughing some more," says Elliott. "From just being silly and free. I have loved the mornings when I have woken up with a tummy ache from so many belly laughs the night before with friends. Almost like sore muscles from exercise.”
Dr. Anna Roth says, “I just led a retreat of 24 women in Northern MN. My favorite part of the weekend was how much we laughed. And perhaps surprisingly, the belly laughs were intertwined with our explorations of some of our most painful and tender moments over the past few years. It was this beautiful reminder that joy is never far away from pain if we feel all the way through in community.”
“I think if you just laugh, really almost about anything,” muses Gurmukh, “you’re going to feel more joy and more joy leads to more peace. We think that you have to be grim for this, or happy for that. But how about just trying to laugh more and feel joy? We have the tools we need to bring more peace.”