No Joke: The Benefits of Laughing Out Loud

By: Deanna Renaud

Experts suggest a little laughter each day to build resiliency, improve health, and find more joy.

Andrea Brown, M.A., community program educator at UPMC Western Behavioral Health, finds it playing with her puppy.

Bob Miller, M.S., Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy (CEAT) program coordinator at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, finds it in everyday moments with his wife.

Whatever sparks a giggle, a guffaw or even a snort, it’s time to embrace those little moments that fill us with joy. And experts tell us we should be looking for more of them.

Brown and Miller are part of the Wellness Committee at UPMC Western Behavioral Health. Each month, the committee chooses a topic to spotlight on UPMC’s employee social forum, Yammer. Recently, the members wanted to address stress and the topic turned to humor.

“We get caught up in whatever the stress is, and it’s easy to forget what a huge impact just a couple of minutes of laughter can have,” said Miller. “It doesn’t change the stressful situation, but it can totally change where we’re at internally.”

Miller says taking a moment to smile or laugh is not about ignoring your stress. In the midst of prolonged stress, these moments are more about giving ourselves permission to feel a little joy.

“Sometimes we feel guilty if we’re feeling good when it’s stressful,” he says. “Or we feel like we’re not allowed to feel good.”

Brown says taking five minutes to experience joy can often help connect caregivers with their patients. “If someone is struggling to stay positive, you can say ‘This is what I do, this is what has helped me.’ We all need self-care.”

‘Like Being in Love’

Not only does a good belly-laugh make people feel lighter and happier, it also triggers a physiological response that can have profound health benefits.

Melissa M. Brown, Psy.D., a clinical manager at UPMC PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates, says that in today’s world, the state of near-constant fight-or-flight many of us live in can be destructive to our bodies if we don’t give ourselves a break.

“When we laugh, our brains release endorphins,” said Brown. “This can decrease pain, burn calories. It’s like being in love for the first time.”

Often referred to as the body’s natural painkiller, endorphins help reduce the sensation of pain and produce feelings of well-being. When laughing with others, that feeling of euphoria helps strengthen social bonds and brings us a greater sense of connection. According to studies, laughter can also alter the activity of other “happy hormones,” such as dopamine and serotonin, and decrease levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.

A little laughter may also better equip us to fight off illness. Research suggests those chemical responses in our bodies can strengthen our immune systems.

“When our system calms, we ‘de-panic’ our bodies. This releases tension, stomach issues go away, headaches improve,” said Brown. It also keeps us from finding unhealthy ways to cope, like over-eating or drinking too much. And we’re less likely to become irritable.”

In Practice

If laughter throughout the day remains elusive, a guided approach could help.

Andrea Brown suggests blowing bubbles, which provides several benefits, she says. The activity requires attention, drawing focus away from negative thoughts, and the act of blowing a bubble requires slowed breathing. “We are not going to get bubbles if we are having short shallow breaths.”

No matter if it’s watching funny videos, laughing with co-workers, appreciating surroundings, or blowing bubbles, experiencing more joy often starts with the decision to let it in.