A new study shows why laughter is so healthy: when you laugh, your brain gets an increase in endorphins, chemicals known for making you feel good. Scientists have long known that laughter has positive benefits, but weren’t really sure why. The new study, by Professor Robin Dunbar at Oxford University, compared a condition of laughter with a condition where you felt good but didn’t actually laugh. It turns out that you only get the endorphin rush from the physical act of laughing–the muscular exertions–and not from the cerebral pleasure of getting the joke intellectually.
Dr. Dunbar (famous as the author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language) thinks that laughter evolved to serve a social function, of helping bond social groups together. Laughter bonds social groups together, so evolution provided a mechanism to make us laugh more: the endorphin rush. Even non-human primates laugh (but for them it sounds more like panting).
The take home message? When you feel like laughing, let it all come out. Don’t just do the “wry smile” thing and try to look cool. The louder and longer, the better you’ll feel.
*Dunbar et al. (2011). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society B.