The Healing Power of Humour

Smiling coffee image
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘laugh it off’ – but is coping with humour something that can actually help us? Scientific discoveries into the roles of emotion suggest that perhaps healing humour can play a very important role in our physical, social and emotional wellness.

This can be traced through language itself; the root of the word ‘laughter’ is linked to the Greek word ‘hele’, which means health.
This has fascinating applications to the world of mental health, even shaping burgeoning therapies that harness the power of a good hearty laugh.

Smiling elderly couple


Smiling Science: The Role of Serotonin

The clinical and wellness practices of today are largely shaped by the serotonin hypothesis; the belief that it is serotonin that makes us happy. This hypothesis was first put forward by researchers in the 1960s and still informs our understanding of mood in a contemporary context. This ultimately leads to the rationalisation that mood disorders such as depression (and other mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia) have a neurological basis – they happen because we are ‘low’ on serotonin.

Serotonin (known in the clinical world as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)) is a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a communicating chemical; its job is to move between cells in a process known as synaptic transmission in order to fulfil a specific role. With serotonin, this role is associated with mood and memory, cementing its position as ‘the happy chemical.’
So, if we associate serotonin deficiency with low mood, it follows that increased levels of serotonin would lead to happier feelings. But how do we get more serotonin?

Experts suggest that serotonin can be increased by adjusting the diet (to increase your intake of tryptophan, a type of amino acid that can be converted to serotonin) by exercising, increasing your light exposure and through practising mindfulness techniques.

However, new clinical work suggests that there may be other ways to stimulate serotonin. Research suggests that serotonin levels can be affected by smiling, with one researcher suggesting that ‘one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate’.

By extension, laughing can also stimulate serotonin, along with other feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. [8] The more clinicians look into the role of smiling and laughing, the more they are able to identify that feeling happy doesn’t just cause laughter; it can also work the other way around.

Laughing with friends


The Science of Laughter

We’ve all experienced times when things have been tough – we’re unwell, we’re struggling managing workloads, we have concerns about health or relationships – so we meet up with a loved one. We all have those people in our lives who know how to make us laugh no matter the situation, and usually, once we’ve spent some time with them, everything feels a little less heavy. But why does this happen? What is it about laughing that brings such a deep breath of fresh air?

Scientists view the role of laughter from two different perspectives; the biological and the social.

Biological Explanations: Laughter and the Body

Laughter has a range of positive effects on our bodies as well as on our brains. These positive responses can be linked to ‘arousal theories’ which theorist J.E. Yim identifies as ideas that ‘suggest that laughter shows a complicated interaction of mind and body, between cognition and emotion, rooted in the brain and the nervous system.’
These interactions can mean that laughter helps to:

  • Increase cognitive function
  • Improve breathing
  • Increase pain thresholds and tolerance
  • Reduce stress by lowering levels of stress-related hormones (such as cortisol)
  • Relaxes muscles
  • Improves circulation
  • Increases immune system function

Social Explanations: Laughing with Friends

There’s something very special about sharing a laugh with a loved one. As humans, we are social beings, and researchers also attribute this character to their theories of laughter. Laughter can often stand in as a connecting moment, a shared experience between people. But how does this happen?


One theory relates to the role of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a special type of neuron that are associated with empathy. They are ‘activated’ when we see other people experience specific things, such as crying, smiling, or laughing.

MRI scans show that when most people witness other people seeing these things, their mirror neurons light up in a vicarious experience of the emotion. This suggests that contagious nature of laughter can be linked to connection; indicating that the feeling of empathy is part of what makes laughter feel so good.

  • Improves interaction and relationships
  • Increases friendliness
  • Provides ‘joy’

This feeling of social connectedness and acceptance can lead to a reduction in stress and promote positive self-perception, which can also work towards long-term positive wellbeing.



Laughter Therapy: Utilising the Positive Effects of Humour

Can You Fake a Laugh?

Laughter has been studied for centuries. Guillaume Duchenne conducted one of the earliest pieces of research into the role of laughter. Duchenne was able to identify two muscles in the face that have a key role in the physical mechanics of laughter. These muscles (the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi) are important in identifying whether a laugh is voluntary.
The Zygomatic major muscle is positioned in the face and can control the corners of our mouth. We have control over this muscle, meaning that it is possible for us to smile on cue, even if we do not feel happy. With the orbicularis oculi, however, this is not the case. It’s impossible to stimulate this area (a muscle in our eyelids) on cue, leading to Duchenne identifying a ‘real’ smile as one that affects our eyes as much as our mouths.
Research into the effectiveness of laughing in maintaining wellbeing does not tend to distinguish between an ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ smile, suggesting that even if a smile (or a laugh) is stimulated by will rather than genuine joy, the biological benefits can be the same.
This has fascinating implications as it suggests that the mechanical movements of laughter can stimulate the same benefits as a laugh caused by genuine joy.

Laughter Therapy vs Traditional Therapy

Research has suggested that alongside all of its wellbeing benefits, laughter therapy is a feasible alternative to traditional therapies for a range of practical reasons. Described as a ‘non-invasive, cost-effective, and easily implementable intervention’, laughter therapy seems like an ideal alternative with high benefits, low risks and limited need for resources.
Without the need for medication, laughter therapy is a non-pharmacological approach that could appeal to many. With laughter therapy, there are also reduced requirements to learn and practise extensive techniques (as is the case for some psychotherapies, including CBT and DBT). Whilst this reduces pressures on time and resources, this approach may also be helpful for individuals struggling with low motivation and anhedonia associated with mood disorders.

If harnessing the power of ‘laughter [as] a human asset’ can have such a distinct impact on our wellbeing, perhaps we will see laughter therapy become more visible in upcoming years.

Even as our approaches to mental health become more in-depth, holistic and individualised, the returning to the basics of human joy – laughter – may have a solid place in our wellness repertoire.



(Click here to see works cited)

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