The Neuroscience of Laughter, and How to Inspire More of It at Work


Does anyone remember laughter?

That’s right, we just quoted Led Zeppelin as we advocate for spreading laughter and joy in the workplace (and the world, at large).

Given the pandemic and racial tensions, many hearts are heavy; laughter may seem inconceivable. The isolating conditions of quarantine are also making it even less likely we’ll engage in what’s usually a group sport.

While acknowledging the seriousness of what’s happening around us, we want to recognize that, like Dale Carnegie wrote, nobody needs laughter as much as those who have none left to give.

The neuroscience of laughter

There’s a get well card that says “People say laughter is the best medicine… They’ve never had morphine.” Good one, but not necessarily suitable advice. While laughter can’t treat actual pain, it does have demonstrable health benefits (and without morphine’s side effects).

Laughing swaps the cortisol in our bloodstream with highly sought after chemicals in the brain: dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Dopamine can enhance learning, motivation, and attention.

Oxytocin is considered the “empathy hormone” and the “bonding chemical,” and when it enters the bloodstream it creates feelings of relatedness. Endorphins trigger feelings of pleasure; people can endure 15% more pain simply by laughing for a few minutes beforehand. Other health benefits: improved immune functioning, stress relief, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, sense of safety, and improved mood.

Laughter also works as a reappraisal technique, reducing the limbic response associated with “fight-or-flight” reactions. In other words, when feeling stressed the physiological act of laughter can decrease heart rate and blood pressure and relax muscle tension. Just a moment of laughter allows us to think more clearly and creatively and raises relatedness with our colleagues.

Here’s how you can help yourself and those around you.

How to bring joy to the workplace

There are a number of ways to lighten the mood when hearts are heavy. Maybe the quickest is to find and share a funny meme or video. You can’t go wrong with cats knocking things off shelves for no apparent reason and dogs falling into pools.

Know the right timing for something funny: Opening a meeting is usually appropriate timing for something funny. Hilarity-upon-hello can be a great way to kick off and create relatedness (provided the levity is not followed by “you’re fired” or those most ominous of words, “we need to talk”). Even better, it’s humor we can all inject; it can be a new habit for anyone on the team. Humor can also diffuse tension; think Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.”

Tell a quick story: Here’s an example. I lost my iPhone in my pants once. That’s right, I spent 20 panicked minutes looking around my apartment for my smartphone, only to find out that my pocket had a hole in it. I did not discover this until I used “find my phone” and felt the vibration on my calf where it had found its temporary new home. This got some good guffaws at my ensuing marketing meeting and it only took a minute to tell.

Be kind: If a joke is at someone’s expense, ensure it’s yours. Having a bad hair day? That’s fun to call out; it’s relatable and often an easy laugh. Feeling insecure about something about your physical appearance? Probably best to keep that one to yourself. No need for self-harm or derogation (or to others), and it may make others uncomfortable—precisely the opposite of the intended goal.

Stay PG: If you’re hedging on whether it’s appropriate or not, it’s probably not. Best to avoid anything that could be perceived as inappropriate or offensive to race, gender, or age. How to make that call? When in doubt, leave it out.

In a world sharply divided over any topic you can think of, a bit of laughter can bridge even the widest gaps. You already knew that intuitively; now you know the science to validate it.

Authors: Gabriel Berezin , Mika Liss


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