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Is Laughter the Best Medicine? These Clowns Say Absolutely!

Is Laughter the Best Medicine? These Clowns Say Absolutely!

Sometimes it takes a crisis to realize you need a big dose of laughter. My aha moment came with flashing red lights: a breast cancer diagnosis late last year. What I learned during my treatment and the six months since is that laughter is strong medicine — and an absolute must for my health and happiness.

The science of laughter, called gafology — just kidding, it’s gelotology — has revealed just how important it is to laugh regularly.

Join your clown friends and me on a deep dive into a topic to treasure and spread around: Laughter.

We’ll cover 4 ways laughter really is the best medicine, and also invite you to take our laughter challenge!

First, let’s reflect on your laugh-life.

Two clowns getting laughs in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe, 2019. CWB Artists Sibusiso Khambule and Robin Lara

Is Laughter the Best Medicine for You?

Where does laughter enter your life, and where does it run smack into a glass door before reaching you?

Can you laugh anytime you want to shift your perspective or mindset?

This isn’t about instituting happy thoughts to avoid unpleasant ones. It’s about celebrating the power of laughter to enrich your life and add pep to your step.

The point, or the question rather, is this: How’s your laugh-life?

Here’s a fun quiz to help you check-in:

Laughter reflection quiz
Prizes sent straight to your inbox, which look exactly like our weekly newsletter

Now that you’ve gotten to know your laugh-life, let’s talk about how it benefits your health and relationships.

1. The mental benefits of laughter are no joke.

Do you ever crave laughter?

Maybe you itch to laugh at the end of a tense workday, or you search for a funny movie after a stressful week managing a family crisis. These are great examples of how you’re already using laughter to regulate your mind and body. Well played!

Let’s dig deeper and find out what’s happening before, during, and after a good laugh.

That stressed-out feeling (before a laugh)

When you experience stress of any type, cortisol, “the stress hormone,” surges in your body. Short term, cortisol helps you feel mentally focused and energized. Long term, it can leave you feeling irritable, anxious, and fatigued. Less observable changes include an increase in blood sugar and a weakening of the immune system.

three types of stress

The good news is that your brain is ready and waiting for you to take an action that will trigger the release of feel-good hormones.

What happens during and after mirthful laughter?

You’re stressed out after a long day. Then your kid says the funniest thing and gets you to crack up. Here’s a breakdown of why you feel so pleasant moments later.

Hormone bliss-out

Your brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus kick into action, producing beta-endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. Within seconds, they’ve spread throughout your body and have overpowered stress hormones (especially cortisol) to get you feeling:

  • Positive, optimistic, and less tense (endorphins)
  • Full of pleasure (dopamine)
  • Warm and fuzzy toward others (oxytocin)

These hormones are not to be underestimated.

quote about laughter from Doctor
Antigua Guatemala, 2019. CWB Artist Xexa Toje

At a 15-year follow-up of 53,556 women and men, researchers of the Norway study on laughter found that women whose sense of humor measured on the high end were associated with a 48% lower risk of death from all causes. Men who had good humor had a 74% reduced risk of death from infection. The researchers suspect that a greater ability to cope with stress (and associated hormone levels) may be what contributed most to participants living longer.

Beta-endorphins that replace cortisol during laughter are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine and are immune system strengtheners (say that 3 times fast!).

1.5 (Surprise bonus!) Is it good for your heart to laugh?

You don’t need a doctor (or clown doctor) to know about the physiological changes that occur when you laugh. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Your lungs fill with oxygen-rich air, which
  • The additional blood circulation
    • Stimulate and protect blood vessels and heart muscles
    • Relaxes muscles and eases tension
  • Your heart rate increases, then decreases
    • Stabilizing your blood-pressure
    • Bringing a sense of calm

If the benefits ended there, you may feel only mildly impressed since you could get similar results from exercise. But there’s much more to the power of laughter as medicine.

Let’s talk about how it reduces pain.

Clown falls on top of laughing boys in Egypt
Egypt, 2022. CWB Artist Robin Lara

2. Who said, “laughter is the best medicine?” Someone in pain.

I admit to binge-watching Emily in Paris during my first days post-surgery. I laughed at all the cringe it served up. The point was the laughter, and I got my share.

Maybe you have had a similar experience of being ill or in pain and seeking humor.

Turns out that laughing when in pain helps you feel better — but it’s not only because you’re getting a mood boost. Researchers at Oxford have found that our pain threshold actually increases about 10% after we laugh for 15 minutes. 

Laughter is also a study-proven non-pharmacologic intervention (NPI, see box) to help reduce stress and anxiety.

What are NPIs

We know laughter really isn’t medicine, but its health benefits are hard to ignore: Laughter is non-invasive, comes without side effects, plus it’s free and accessible.

Clowns Without Borders (CWB) artist Michael O’Neil believes that laughter is a frame of mind: He brings a rubber chicken on every tour because it gives him a chuckle knowing that the TSA might just open his bag and see it.

Clown with girl whose smiling as she spins a ball on her finger
Columbia, 2015. CWB Artist Michael O’Neil

Now let’s turn to talk about two ways that laughter can improve your life beyond health and ease.

3. Which comes first: the friendship or the laughter?

During radiation treatment, I listened to two audiobooks: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Together by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

Guess which audiobook had me chuckling in the waiting room?

In the not-as-funny-yet-just-as-real Together book, Murthy talks about how people with chronic loneliness are at a higher risk of illness. Chronic loneliness is indicated by feelings that no one is looking out for you, that you are invisible, or that you have to solve problems on your own.

During the pandemic, self-reported loneliness in the US ballooned to 36%, with 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children reporting “serious loneliness.”

I guess it’s good to know I wasn’t alone in my loneliness?

quote from victor borge: 'Laughter is the shortest distance...'

Laughter is powerful medicine for loneliness

One of the most powerful benefits of laughter may be its ability to bring people together.

Sharing a laugh works to connect us quickly because, when you laugh at the same thing, your brain signals that you share the same worldview. And feeling that you’re coming from the same place (metaphorically, as a line of thinking and feeling) is key to developing a relationship.

Laughter transcends

Laughter cuts through social anxiety and social difference, connecting people across languages and cultures. The sound of human laughter is the most recognizable emotion-vocalization: it sounds the same regardless of language or culture. People from other cultures can even recognize the difference between laughter among strangers and laughter among friends.

Clowns running and getting laughter in Greece
Greece, 2015. CWB Artist Sabine Choucair and Luz Gaxiola

Clowns Without Borders artists can attest to this reality: Artists have witnessed refugees, diverse in nationality, culture, and language (including Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis), stand shoulder-to-shoulder and laugh together during CWB performances—just like in the photo above.

You can see that laughter has been key to our evolution as cooperative social beings.

4. Laughter can change your life (red nose optional)

Clown among women in Central Brazil
Central Brazil, 2019. CWB Artist Melissa Aston

You’ll experience loss, ill health, or loneliness in your life.

Luckily, people like author, playwright, and storyteller Kevin Kling remind us we can survive loss if we can find our humor and move toward an emergence of what’s next. He shares“When you laugh at something, it can’t control you.”

In 2010, CWB toured Haiti two months after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Our artists used physical humor and nonverbal communication to connect with kids with broken limbs and amputations. A 2020 reflection of the tour speaks to the power of laughter to facilitate healing of traumatic events: “Every day, people would say things like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen that child smile since she was pulled out of the rubble two months ago.’”

Girl with bandage laughing at a show
CWB tour to Haiti, 2010

What are your stories to tell? How can laughter facilitate change in your life?

If you want a few clowns to support you along your path, check out CWB’s laughter challenge, and learn how to make laughter a habit — one that changes your brain and makes life more fun.

image that links to teh 6-day laughter challenge

So, is laughter the best medicine?

All signs point to yes (and, no, we aren’t just using our 8-Ball).

Never get used to laughing less, because laughter’s not a nice-to-have, but a necessary companion for health, friendship, and creating a life you love.

Take it from CWB audiences around the world: Sometimes all you need is a little boost to get the laughs rolling. Soon enough, you’ll be the one telling the next joke! We see it happen all the time.

CWB works to infuse laughter in places where laughter has been scarce, such as refugee camps or conflict zones. To learn more about CWB start here.

  • Lily Bridgers
    November 9, 2023

    Lately, life has been quite chaotic, and the news is filled with one stressful story after another. It feels like we could all use a break from the heaviness. So, I started thinking about how a stand-up comedy documentary could be the perfect antidote. Even you said that though its health advantages are obvious, it is difficult to deny that laughing is a free, readily available, non-invasive kind of medication.

    • Maggie Cunha, MPH
      November 9, 2023

      What a fun and refreshing perspective! Looking forward to checking out "Just Like Us"!

  • Chip Daly
    October 20, 2022

    Thank You Maggie! This is a great blog, and well written. As a nurse/clown I too know that laughter works. I have seen it many times in my career. I have many stories of how laughter has helped someone in need. Two of my favorites are…. One, I clown in Russia routinely with my friend Maria who runs Maria’s Children. Naomi knows all about Maria. Anyway, I went to her summer camp in 2007. At this camp, a group of kids from Beslan joined us. I didn’t know anything about Beslan at the time, but I have certainly learned a lot since. I have been to Beslan 9 times now. Their main school was attacked by terrorist in 2004. It was a horrific moment in time. 334 people were killed, including 186 children. On the flip side, there were over 800 survivors who live with PTSD from the tragedy. One particular girl, Ira, was deeply effected by it. I had no idea of course, but I learned later that she would not smile or laugh after the attack. Her brother and sister were killed, while her and her mom survived. So, I can hardly blame her for not wanting to laugh. At camp, she seemed to me to be a very sweet, but shy girl. I had no info of her back story. She was in my family group, so I treated her the same as I did everyone else. I played with her, laughed with her, and smiled with her a lot. It was almost two years later, on my first trip to Beslan, where I met her mother Nadya. Nadya gave me the biggest, warmest hug ever and kept saying “spaciba, spaciba”. This is Thank You in Russian. I had no idea why she was thanking me so profusely. This is when I learned that Ira came home from summer camp 2 years earlier and was smiling and laughing, almost back to her old self. Her mom says I changed her with my laughter, play and smiles. She is like an adoptive daughter to me now and I love hearing about her life. She got married two years ago and seems pretty happy overall. All because a clown would laugh with her! My other story is written in my blog, if you care to read it. It is from 2014, but I think about it almost every day. Anyway, Thank You and thanks to all the clowns that do what they can to spread Laughter and Joy around the world. I for one know how important it is and can be! With Love and Laughter, Chip Daly

    • Maggie Cunha, MPH
      October 20, 2022

      Hi Chip! What an honor it must be to know you had such a profound change in a person’s life. Thank you for sharing your story here with our CWB community. Also, I just read your blog post and enjoyed it. I now know what “inner clown” means. Thank you!

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