We know it’s often referred to as “the best medicine,” but can laughter also be considered a form of exercise? According to a recent Oxford University study, it can.
Laughter, like many of the peculiar human traits we exhibit, is interconnected to a whole host of chemical and physical systems in the body. The study, entitled “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B focused in on the connection between pain thresholds and the fundamentally physical action of laughing—mainly the “repeated, forceful exhalation of breath from the lungs,” lead author of the study, Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford told the New York Times.
To find out more about the physical effects of laughter, the researchers had subjects watch short videos—either comic or rather boring factual documentaries—both alone and within a group setting after testing the individual subjects for their abilities to tolerate pain. According to the Times article, “The decision to introduce pain into this otherwise fun-loving study stems from one of the more well-established effects of strenuous exercise: that it causes the body to release endorphins, or natural opiates.” These endorphins are important in pain management—and may be attributed to the healing effects of laughter as well. And the study researchers found that viewing the funny videos increased pain thresholds whereas viewing the documentaries did not.
Volunteers who exhibited deep belly laughing, in part led to the pleasurable experiences when watching the funny videos, “the sense of heightened affect in this context probably derives from the way laughter triggers endorphin uptake,” wrote Dr. Dunbar and his colleagues in the study. It’s the physical “laugh until it hurts” situation that actually impacted the emotional reaction of something the subjects found to be funny.
Laughter’s infectious capacity, the researchers noted, particularly within a group, led to more intense episodes, resulting in greater physiological effects than laughing alone.
Don’t fake it, says the researchers. The truly physiological reactions to repeated forced exhalations from authentic laughing contribute to the endorphin effect.
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Image: Mike Monaghan