The best medicine

Did you hear the one about laughter and your health... it’s guaranteed to boost your spirits and your wellbeing!  

Words: Kayte Nunn

A big belly laugh can ease tension and generally make you feel good, but the benefits of laughter extend much further than that.

Laughing uses up to 50 facial muscles. And, according to studies, this triggers the release of feel-good hormones oxytocin and melatonin, as well as serotonin and dopamine, which are both used in antidepressants.

“When we laugh, we release hormones and there are certain neurotransmitters in our brain that are mood-enhancing,” says Dr Tim Sharp, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute. “This happens when you laugh naturally and even if you ‘fake it’ ... you can still build up the same physiological response and therefore get the same benefits.”

A study conducted in 2000 by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were 40 per cent less likely to laugh at a range of situations compared to people without heart disease. The study concluded that people with heart disease generally laugh less and display more anger and hostility in everyday life situations1.


When we laugh heartily, our facial muscles contract, our breathing speeds up and blood flow increases, which combats the effects of stress; and fight or flight stress hormones such as epinephrine, cortisol and dopamine, are stemmed2.

Laughter has also been found to be a natural painkiller. A study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing3 looked at the pain perceptions of patients who were told jokes before pain medication was administered. Those patients perceived less pain than those who were not told jokes.

A force for good

Shared laughter increases our emotional connections with others and has been shown to improve our relationships by cementing positive bonds and deepening intimacy.

Laughter has even been shown to improve the way our brains work. A study conducted at Stanford University in 2003 used MRI machines to map brain activity. When the participants enjoyed a joke, it activated part of a pathway that runs to the brain’s reward centre, which is the same part of the brain that is shown to be stimulated by eating chocolate or having sex. This is also where dopamine is generated, a chemical which stimulates the brain’s frontal lobe, which is used in complex mental tasks4.

Laughter in practice

The movie Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams, was based on the rule-breaking work of American doctor Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams, who believed that humour, joy and laughter were essential to healing. This philosophy can now be seen in practice in many of our own hospitals, particularly in children’s wards.

As Dr Sharp says, “If you think about the best humour, it looks at things from a different perspective… This is at the heart of cognitive therapy, which is arguably the most effective treatment for depression, anxiety and stress, as it is based on looking at situations in a more helpful way. A lot of humour does that, so laughing is often associated with looking at things in different ways.”

References: 1
2 3 Matz, A. Brown, “Humor and Pain Management.” Journal of Holistic Nursing. 16.1 (1998): 68-75. 4 laughing?page=1s

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.