Laughter & Endorphins: The Knee-Slapping Facts

Counselor Online

“I can be in the throes of depression and anxiety, and a good laugh always seems to help. I’ve always wondered why that is. Your thoughts, Bill?”

Well, I think everyone knows a good belly-laugh is a super natural remedy for most anything that ails us. Most assume it’s the product of some sort of brain-chemical-magic. And you know what? New research confirms and explains it.

According to the University of Oxford’s Dr. Robert Dunbar…

“Very little research has been done into why we laugh and what role it plays in society. We think that it is the bonding effects of the endorphin rush that explain why laughter plays such an important role in our social lives.”

“What Are Endorphins?”

If we’re going to do some slicing and dicing here, we’d better get a grip on just what endorphins are.

Produced in the brain – by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus – endorphins are endogenous (internal) opioid peptides that actually function as neurotransmitters. Their feel-good and pain relieving action resembles that of the opiates (morphine, codeine, etc.).

The production of endorphins can be generated by exercise, pain, the sensation of love, orgasm, and even consumption of spicy foods.

Laughter/Endorphin Research

As much as we may have assumed endorphins had much to do with the spirit-lifting power of laughter, it’s been pure conjecture. At least until Dunbar and his colleagues worked up some research.

In an effort to tie-the-knot between laughter and endorphins, the study team elected to work with the analgesic (pain relieving) action of endorphins.

The first order of biz was to test their participants’ pain threshold. And then it was on to administering a laugh-inducing or control test. Pain thresholds were tested again.

Interesting stuff: Laughter was induced using clips from the TV shows “Mr. Bean” and “Friends.” But since laughter is 30 times more likely to occur in a social context (versus by your lonesome), the participants needed to be tested in a group setting. So off they went to live comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ah, but what about the pain-inducing piece? Well, two “ouchy” methods were used. During solitary laughter sessions, participants’ arms were wrapped in a frozen wine-cooling sleeve or a blood pressure cuff until the patient said they’d had enough. When the work was conducted at the comedy shows, participants squatted against a wall until they collapsed.

Both would work for me.

“So Why Does Laughter Release Endorphins?”

How ’bout some results? In all cases, the participants’ pain tolerance spiked after laughing. Numbers? Watching 15 minutes of comedy – in a group – increased pain threshold by 10%. When the participants experienced laughter alone, the threshold increase was slightly less.

To solidify the results, the team determined that when the participants watched something that didn’t generate laughter, pain thresholds didn’t change – and were often lowered.

And that’s all the research team needed to connect the spirit-lifting power of laughter with endorphin release.

But how does it actually happen? It’s believed that the long series of exhalations that accompany laughter lead to physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles (“belly-laugh?”). And this, in turn, triggers endorphin release. Remember, physical activity generates the release of endorphins.

Let’s Close

So now it’s official. The mood-lifting magic of laughter can be attributed to the release of endorphins.

Don’t know about you, but I love learning the how’s and why’s behind our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. So we can put another notch in our education and insight poles.

Okay, great. Now get busy and find a reason to laugh (preferably with others)…

Click here if you’d like to read more chipur Feelin’ Better articles. For more on the biology of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, just click here.