According to many health experts, laughter actually has significant health benefits, both in the long and short term. These benefits aren’t just mental or emotional, either – they can produce real, physical changes in your body.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following (non-exhaustive) compilation of health benefits from laughter:

  • Stimulate your organs. Laughing allows you to take in more oxygen-rich air, stimulates organs throughout your body (including your heart and lungs), and increases endorphins.
  • Activate the stress response. When you laugh, your body’s stress response kicks in, then calms back down, with a corresponding rise and fall in heart rate. That sequence can help your body feel more relaxed.
  • Relieve tension. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and improve muscle relaxation, relieving physical and mental stress.
  • Boost your immune system. Stress actually can have a physical and chemical reaction in your body, which in turn stresses your system and lowers your immune response. Positive thoughts – like ones that cause laughter – can release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially other illnesses.
  • Relieve pain. Did you know that laughter can actually induce the body to produce its own natural, internal painkillers?
  • Increase personal satisfaction. Laughter can make it easier to handle the stresses of life while also helping you connect better with the people around you.
  • Improve your mood. Even (or especially) when you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, or chronic illness, laughter can help relieve the symptoms and boost feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.

There are other surprising benefits to laughter along with these subtler, long-term ones. For instance, a 2007 study found that laughter – “genuine, voiced laughter,” not a polite little chuckle – can raise heart rates and calorie burning up to 10% to 20%.

Psychologists also point to humor as a specific type of mechanism that our minds use to handle stressful or upsetting situations. As an adaptive defense mechanism, humor can allow us to “take the sting” out of traumatic or stressful situations, reframing them and allowing them to be vented while taking some of the power and pain out of them. It also can generate feelings of empathy and human connection, especially when that laughter is shared with others.

Humor is, of course, very personal, and what reads as “hilarious” to one person might not even get a chuckle out of someone else. There’s no “one size fits all” to inducing laughter, but, as individuals, we can do a lot to boost our own well-being by learning what’s humorous to us and seeking that out, especially when we’re tired or stressed. We can also build better bonds with one another through laughter; sharing a good laugh can help us feel closer to each other and relieve some of the emotional strain.

There’s the old saying that laughter is the best medicine, and in some cases, it turns out that it actually is!

By Tom Zeleny, NHA