Laughter really is the best medicine

Research links humor to lower stress, a healthier heart, improved memory, and more…

Laughter is an outward sign of a positive mental state.

It shows you’re experiencing pleasure, joy, satisfaction, and enthusiasm—all of which can help lower your risk of chronic diseases and increase longevity.

And after this past year, we could all use a good laugh. Not only for our mental health, but for our physical health, too.

Laugh often, lower your stress

Studies show wide-ranging health benefits of laughter—from improving weight loss to relieving depression. And a study by cardiologists with the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease tend to laugh 40 percent less than people of the same age without heart disease.1

Of course, that’s not surprising when you consider how laughter reduces stress (the No. 1 hidden factor of heart disease). In fact, a new, well-designed study found that the more you laugh, the lower your stress levels.2

Researchers installed apps on the phones of 41 college psychology students. The apps prompted the students to answer questions about their stress levels eight times a day for 14 days. (Having to answer that many questions daily sounds stressful in itself…but, I digress.) The students were also asked how often they laughed during the course of a day.

The researchers discovered that the students who laughed near the time of stressful events had fewer stress symptoms. Interestingly, the researchers also found that the stress reduction wasn’t dependent on how hard the students laughed, but rather how often they laughed.

Laugh your way to better memory

Meanwhile, an earlier study on men and women in their 60s and 70s found that having a good laugh not only lowered levels of their stress hormones, but even helped improve their memory.3

Researchers divided the 20 subjects into two groups. They asked one group to sit silently. Participants were not allowed to talk, read, or use their cellphones for 20 minutes. The other group watched funny videos during the same time frame. Then, each group took a memory test.

Both groups performed better on the memory test than they did at the start of the study. But the “humor group” had 44 percent better memory recall, while the “silent group” only had 20 percent improvement.

Plus, the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”—while the non-humor group’s cortisol levels decreased only slightly.

How laughter works in your body and brain

Of course, the concept of laughter as medicine is hardly new. Dr. Annette Goodheart invented laughter therapy in the 1960s. She was also the first to create a scientific framework for the therapeutic use of “voluntary stimulated laughter.”

Dr. Goodheart taught that tones of voice, chanting, and laughter provide “inner music and harmony” that can help trigger the most basic healing responses in the body.

She also showed that different sounds of laughter have different frequencies and vibrations that resonate directly with the heartbeat. It turns out, laughter can speed up the heartbeat in a state of excitement, or slow it down in a state of relaxation.

Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams is another pioneer in the science of humor and healing.

I knew him way back when—before he became famous from the movie “Patch Adams,” where his character was played by the late Robin Williams (who I also had met while we were both in college in California, and who tragically had his own “tears of a clown” story).

“Patching” things up

In 1995, years before the movie came out, I wanted to include a chapter on “Humor Therapy” by Dr. Adams in the first edition of my textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (now in its sixth edition), which was the first U.S. textbook on natural approaches to health and healing. (You can order yourself a copy from the “books” tab on my website,

My publisher was Churchill Livingstone, a venerable old medical publishing house in London and Edinburgh. They also publish the classic Gray’s Anatomy textbook (not the TV show).

My editors had expressed some reservations about including a chapter on humor in a medical textbook. They weren’t quick to take any extra chances…not with the first textbook on the science of natural medicine. So, they left out Dr. Adams’ original chapter in my first edition. And there it sat for years, yellowing on my top shelf.

Then, when it came time to issue a new, second edition of my textbook, the movie “Patch Adams” had come out to great popular acclaim. And Dr. Adams’ all-but-forgotten, generous contribution to the first edition of my book quickly became quite valuable.

In fact, it’s almost laughable (literally) how abruptly my publishers changed their tune. Suddenly, they became very interested in publishing that old chapter by Patch Adams. So, they rushed it into print for the second edition. And it was a great, groundbreaking contribution.

Laugh and live out loud

I still stay in touch with Dr. Adams, and he still updates his chapter for new editions of my textbook. He remains quite busy traveling the world, bringing humor to medicine, literally.

Recently, as Patch and I updated his chapter for the latest, sixth edition of my textbook, I was reminded just how important the topic of humor in medicine is, and how it connects to most of the other chapters in my textbook.

So your personal take-away for this month comes straight from my textbook…

Make it a point to laugh out loud—today, and often. Also, work your way through the laughter sounds I list in the sidebar on page 5. The full range of frequencies and vibrations will benefit your entire body and mind.

Besides, it will be fun!

SIDEBAR: How to bring more healthy laughter into your life

If the research on the health-boosting benefits of laughter sounds good to you, try these well-studied sounds of laughter at home:

  • HA. This most frequent sound of laughter opens your mouth and stretches and expands your chest. The vowel “A” produces vibration in your kidneys, abdomen, and hips. It also stimulates your adrenal glands, giving waves of energy to your body.
  • HE. This more subtle form of laughter produces vibration under your ribs, stimulating your liver, gallbladder and muscles. It also facilitates digestion.
  • HI. This “frolicking” laughter sound produces vibrations in your neck and heart areas. It can also stimulate your thyroid gland.
  • HO. This vibration literally goes to your head. It affects your pineal gland, pituitary glands, and brainstem. Some experts say it also helps with digestion—which was probably appreciated by the jolly old elf (Santa Claus) whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly when he laughed, “Ho-ho-ho.” And of course, there are the Seven Dwarfs, with their cheerful “HI HO, HI HO, it’s off to work we go.”
  • HU. This “dark laughter,” which occurs at the lowest frequency and vibration, is very powerful. It affects your large intestines and gets more air into your nostrils to help stimulate your sense of smell.



2“Does laughing have a stress-buffering effect in daily life? An intensive longitudinal study.” Plos one 15, no. 7 (2020): e0235851.

3“The effect of humor on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole-person wellness.” Adv Mind Body Med. 2014 Spring;28(2):16-24.