Pain 10% more bearable after laughing with friends

Laughing in a group releases endorphins that help us cope with pain, a study has found. Flickr/puck90

Laughing with friends for around 15 minutes boosts a person’s pain threshold by an average of 10%, an international study has found.

Laughter has long been associated with well-being, even inspiring a form of yoga based around giggling.

Now a research team led by evolutionary anthropologists from Oxford University in the UK has concluded that the endorphins released by a big belly laugh in a social setting can make pain more bearable.

Noting that previous studies had found laughter was more likely when in a group than when alone, the researchers conducted experiments where groups of participants watched comedy clips, including Mr Bean, or live comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A control group was shown factual videos like golf tournament footage.

After viewing, the participants were given pain tolerance tests such as seeing how long they could withstand cold, a tight blood pressure cuff or do strenuous exercise.

“We tested the hypothesis that social laughter elevates pain thresholds both in the laboratory and under naturalistic conditions. In both cases, the results confirmed that 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 researchers wrote in their paper, which was titled “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold” and published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“These results can best be explained by the action of endorphins released by laughter.”

The researchers calculated that watching 15 minutes of comedy in a social setting boosted the ability to withstand pain by an average of about 10%.

“We suggest that laughter, through an endorphin-mediated opiate effect, may play a crucial role in social bonding,” the paper said.

Associate Professor John Stevens from Southern Cross University’s Department of Nursing and Health Care, who is also conducting research into how laughter may help dementia patients, said the therapeutic effects of laughter were no secret but that very few rigorous studies have been undertaken to find out how and why.

“This study by Dunbar et al. is the most rigorous study to date showing that laughter releases endorphins, the opiate of our bodies,” said Associate Professor Stevens, who was not involved in the research.

“This study also goes some way to explaining some of the other therapeutic effects of laughter on depression, cancer and dementia that can be found in the literature. More recent studies have looked at the work of clown doctors, laughter yoga and my own study at the moment is looking at the effects of teaching stand up comedy and performance to people with dementia,” he said.

“All these laughter therapies report making people feel better, reducing pain, being happier and more social.”