It’s been almost 30 years since the greatest moment of sporting commentary ever and we have our proper friends from across the pond to thank. The BBC has rather strict rules about sports broadcasters expressing too much emotion when reporting, but two cricket commentators broke those rules and the rest is history. Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew famously got uncontrollable giggles on live radio, while reporting on a test match between England and the West Indies. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about laughter and the effects it has on the body.
The study of laughter from a psychological and physiological perspective has a name -- gelotology. Formally established in 1964 by Norman Cousins and later pioneered by William Fry of Stanford University throughout the 1970s, we’ve learned a lot about how laughter affects the brain and the body. Recent neural imaging studies show that laughing stimulates 5 different regions of the brain including the prefrontal cortex and releases the happy chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.
Dr. Lee Berk has been studying the impact of laughter on neurotransmitters for several decades. According to his research, laughter reduces stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and boosts endorphins and other hormones that activate the prefrontal cortex and strengthen the immune system. We engage muscles in our face and throughout the body, we breathe a little faster sending more oxygen to the tissues and the brain. In fact, simply looking for reasons to laugh or even just anticipating laughter like waiting for the punchline of a joke can impact cognitive function, emotional stability and overall well-being.
Researchers estimate that uncontrollable bouts of laughter can be a total body workout. Deep belly laughs engage the vagus nerve (stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) as well as the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles! Blood pressure is lowered, and there is an increase in vascular blood flow and in oxygenation of the blood, which further assists healing. Laughter also increases the concentration of salivary immunoglobulin A, which defends against infectious organisms entering through the respiratory tract. And if all of that isn’t enough to make you want to laugh a little more, laughing and smiling makes you look up to 2 years younger!
Perhaps the most important benefit of laughter is that it strengthens the human connection. Studies show that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we see other people laugh and smile, and, thanks to automaticity and mirror neurons, we all get the benefits.
Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” At a time when we seem more divided than ever, we could all use a little more laughter.