The power of a good laugh

Dateline, Portland, Oregon—Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: A good laugh is hard to beat, and turns out to be contagious, and good for us. But why?

In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book titled Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the writer, political activist and editor of The Saturday Review outlined the story of his exuberant approach to a diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis. The apocryphal story tells us that he checked himself out of the hospital and spent a month in intentional laughter. When he returned for an evaluation he was found to be disease free. His physicians did not believe he’d laughed himself to health. But note that in the next phase of his career he was appointed an adjunct professor of medical humanities in the UCLA School of Medicine, where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions.  

I have written elsewhere in this blog about our habitual emotional states, and work with my patients around these matters all the time. In addition, for the last five years my Introductory Psychology students have chosen to do a positive psychology project each semester. I have seen hundreds of them engage in an examination of their habitual emotional states as a result of this project. And news from the front—Norman Cousins was right! Laughter is excellent medicine.

I am thinking about this today because of the viral video featuring a Texas woman who purchased a Chewbacca mask, and shared her joy with the entire internet world this week from the front seat of her car. At this moment, 1,037,162 people have viewed this hilarious clip. Why is it so popular? Well, it is (to say the least) contagious. She is sharing a moment of pure joy with all the world, and the world is laughing along.

Why are such things so popular on the internet? We love to watch kittens and puppies do silly things, babies giggle hysterically at fathers who tear up sheets of paper, and zoo animals behaving in unexpected ways. And seeing someone laugh—even if it is on a computer screen—makes us laugh, too.

To understand the contagious power of laughter, it helps to understand the role of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are thought to be the home base of empathy, imitation and the recognition and capacity to share emotions that promote social engagement. These special neurons are found in the frontal and parietal lobes. They fire when we engage in behavior, and also when we observe behavior in others. In theory, observing laughter causes our mirror neurons to fire as though we were laughing ourselves.

When we choose laughter, we are making a choice to engage in something that bathes our bodies in stress-reducing hormones. There is evidence that this boosts our immune system, improves blood flow, boosts mood and dulls pain. Will it cure major illness? The evidence for this remains unclear, but there is no question that laughter creates a sense of engagement, soothes tension and destresses. So go ahead and find something funny to laugh about.

And to the wonderful woman in the Chewbacca mask, thank you!