It’s an age-old question: why does laughter feel so good? We are now one step closer to an answer, thanks to a recent Oxford study. It turns out that the physical act of laughing leads to an increase in endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals in our brains.
These finding confirm the prevailing understanding of laughter as central to group bonding and to our evolution as highly social creatures. In apes, panting accompanies friendly rough-housing. Our laughter may have evolved from a similar behavior. Instead of grooming, patting, and delousing each other as various primates do to stay connected, we humans laugh. (Think about it: when was the last time you laughed while alone?) Laughter is “grooming at a distance,” says Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford. And it’s definitely more socially acceptable than nit-picking one’s friends.
In their study, Dr. Dunbar and his team used pain resistance to assess endorphin levels. (Endorphin molecules cannot be tested via blood samples because they do not circulate in the blood stream.) The research team tested pain resistance before and after instances of good-natured, social laughter amongst their test subjects. They found that laughter led to an increase in pain resistance, and thus endorphins. Merely feeling good in a group setting did not increase pain resistance.
So we know that laughter is a contagious, universal language, and that it triggers the release of endorphins. What scientists have yet to uncover is what triggers laughter, and why we are susceptible to tickling. Maybe they’ll also determine why it never gets old.