What Makes Us Laugh?

The History — and Medical Benefits — of Laughter

By: Kimberly Blaker | Photo by: Juan Garcia ~ 

Whether you guffaw, chuckle, chortle, cackle, roar, howl, or giggle, people all around the world share the ability to laugh. Everyone has something that tickles their funny bone, even if it’s not tickling. Though jokes and comedy may have developed throughout history, laughter’s positive benefits are unaltered.

Laughter may really be the best medicine.

Scientific research has proven a good laugh can positively affect your physical, mental, and emotional health.

Numerous studies find laughter an effective method in cognitive-behavioral therapy because it’s so beneficial to health, there’s even something called laughter therapy used to treat depression, stress, and other mood disorders.

Gelotology — the term used to describe the study of laughter — was developed in the late 1960s and examines the physiological and psychological effects of humor. Just a few of the recorded benefits of laughter include:

  • Increased endorphin levels.
  • Increased production of immune cells and antibodies.
  • Decreased levels of stress-causing hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
  • Improved memory.
  • A refreshing mental break that helps replenish mental resources.
  • Strengthened social bonds.
  • Increased intake of oxygen, which stimulates organs.
  • Reduced muscle tension.
  • Ability to better handle scary or stressful situations.


The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor promotes the use of humor to support improved health and well-being. They have an extensive research library sharing academic research related to the benefits of humor and laughter.

How has humor changed over time?

Humor as a source of laughter has been around as long as humans have been able to communicate.

According to Robert R. Provine, a laughter expert, “The necessary stimulus for laughter is not a joke, but another person.”

Laughter seems to have evolved as an essential part of social interaction, even if it does not happen face-to-face. It’s currently thought humor is based on the recognition to observe or create incongruities in a social setting.

As humans’ cognitive abilities and language developed, so did humor. Play-fighting may be one of the earliest forms of humor due to that incongruous mix playfulness with fighting.

In 2008, a group of British historians found the oldest recorded joke. Dating back to 1900 B.C.E. Sumeria, it translates to: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: A young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

The top 10 oldest jokes from history, discovered by researchers and humor expert Dr. Paul McDonald, reinforce the idea that at their heart, jokes have not changed too much over time. Humor has always dealt with “taboos,” witty retorts, ironies, difficulties, toilet humor, or even someone else’s misfortune.

What people find funny varies based on individual and shared experiences. Humor generally reflects current events and stages of life and can be a way to relate to others. Shared humor relies on shared context and understanding of content. Some types of humor may be more global and relate to the basic human experience. In contrast, others have a narrower audience.

Humor and laughter are universal and vital parts of a happy and healthy life. So keep your spirits up by finding ways to keep laughing. When you’re feeling down, it’s even more important to find something to laugh at to lighten your load.

Socialize with people who make you laugh for a boost. Sign up for a daily joke or comic strip. Follow your favorite comedian on social media. Keep a running list of books, songs, shows, and movies that make you laugh. Or start a “funny file” for emergencies with cards and pictures that bring a smile to your face.

Even if you don’t feel like laughing, try forcing a few chuckles — the more ridiculous, the better. You’ll likely find yourself genuinely laughing before you know it!

To learn more about laughter therapy, check out https://www.aath.org/.

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