The Surprising Benefits of Laughter

The Surprising Benefits of Laughter
Image credit: Paul L Dineen | Flickr

There are few things more satisfying then a genuine belly laugh. But besides its obvious enjoyability, what can laughter do for us?

We took a look at four surprising benefits.

1. Improved short-term memory.

How's this for an excuse to re-watch Dumb and Dumber before an exam: Research indicates that laughter can improve short-term memory (although, to be fair, the study in question specifically looked at older adults). Researchers divided 20 participants in their 60s and 70s into two groups, half of whom watched a short, humorous video for 20 minutes while the other half sat calmly for the same length of time. Afterwards, everyone was given a short-term memory test. Those who had watched the video significantly outperformed those who hadn't. Interestingly, saliva samples revealed that the group who watched the video had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which suggests that laughter, by alleviating stress, had boosted their short-term memory.

2. Enhanced group performance.

Meetings are for work, not laughter, right? Breaking out in giggles just distracts from the important business of getting things done. Not so, found a team of researchers, who set out to study the "function and effects of humor in team interaction settings." Turns out, in many situations, jokes don't hamper performance, they enhance it.

Related: Here's a Reminder: Laughter Makes Meetings Better

By tracking 54 regular team meetings at several German companies for patterns of jokes and laughter, along with performance reviews from the employees' managers directly after the meeting, the researchers determined that "humor patterns triggered positive socioemotional communication, procedural structure, and new solutions." In other words, what looks like mindless kidding around can actually foster a more creative and innovative work environment.

For more productive meetings, not all laughter is created equal, however. It wasn't just jokes or laughter that contributed to the positive reviews, but rather a group rapport that led to improved team performance.

3. New friendships.

When we laugh, we let our guard down and are more likely to share personal disclosures with those around us, according to recent research published in Human Nature. In the study, 122 undergraduates were divided into groups, and assigned to watch one of three videos, either meant to induce laughter (a stand-up comedy routine), a pleasant mood (a nature documentary) or a neutral state (a how-to golf-video).

Related: Humor Them. A Well-Timed Laugh Speaks Volumes.

When their video was finished, participants were asked to write a short introductory bio about themselves and give it to another group member. Students who had watched the stand-up routine were more likely to reveal personal, potentially embarrassing information –sample bios included references to pole dancing accidents, and Disney-film addictions – while students in the two other group kept their introductions relatively generic and safe, inserting facts about diet preferences and nationality instead of more revelatory details.

Why is this important? Previous research has already confirmed what feels intuitive; sharing intimate, personal information is the backbone of forming intimate, personal bonds with others. Laughter's ability to trigger endorphin activity, the researchers behind the study theorize, allows us to let our guards down, which in turn can lead to the formation of new relationships.

4. Increased pain resistance.

In a study, researchers tested participants' pain threshold, and then either put them in a control group or in a group primed to laugh (via watching humorous clips from Friends and Mr. Bean, or attending a live comedy show).

Afterwards, participants were administered pain tolerance tests -- in the lab, this was done by wrapping their arms in a frozen sleeve or a blood-pressure cuff, while at the live show, participants were asked to squat against a wall – until they said they couldn't take it anymore. Across all tests, the participants' pain tolerance increased after laughing, rising an average of 10 percent. "When laughter is elicited, pain thresholds are significantly increased, whereas when subjects watched something that does not naturally elicit laughter, pain thresholds do not change (and are often lower)," the authors wrote.

Related: Twitter Founder: We Hired Dick Costolo Because He's Funny