How laughter and positive emotions not only bring joy to life but enhance our immune systems too
By Tula Karras
Encountering the new, the interesting, the unexpected, and the “wow!” is built into our brains. Not only do surprise, interest, amusement, and awe — emotions of wonder — feel pretty good, but they also carry big benefits. Although all positive emotions motivate us to broaden our horizons, these are particularly potent in inspiring us to explore, learn, and connect to others and the bigger world.
Emotions of wonder often involve a “violation of expectation” — when you encounter something you don’t expect or that leaves you clueless or speechless. This “not knowing” sets you up for serious intellectual gains.
Some experts, such as Robert Fuller, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University, see these emotions as the engine behind some of our world’s great minds. A wonder and curiosity for the physical world drove Sir Isaac Newton to study and discover the laws that govern our universe. A sense of awe for space exploration inspired engineer Yvonne Brill’s pioneering work on propulsion systems for rockets.
Here’s a closer look at the wondrous emotions that enrich our lives.
Surprise and shock live on the same spectrum: Although shock may be accompanied by fear, surprise triggers interest and enhances memory, learning, and focus.
Surprise can be transformative, leading us to change our beliefs and behaviors. Some psychologists say that surprise can also amplify whatever anticipated emotion you feel along with it. You may feel happy on your birthday with the thought of dinner with your friends, but your happiness will be augmented when you’re surprised by a huge party (if you like surprise parties). Experts distinguish surprise from emotions like awe in part by the fact that the “surprise” is often easily explained. With awe, there may not be an obvious explanation.
The hippocampus, known as the brain’s novelty detector, is involved in surprise. It compares new, incoming knowledge with information that’s already stored (memory), and it releases the pleasure and reward chemical dopamine along with norepinephrine (noradrenaline) if it identifies novelty. Studies show that brains like it: Monkeys who expect a reward show dopamine neurons firing, but when they don’t expect a reward and are given one, those neurons fire even more.
Some experts consider interest the first emotion, as seen in a newborn’s wide-eyed focus on a parent’s face. Research from the Netherlands has revealed that curiosity can have two “faces”: a positive face — a desire that anticipates pleasure at finding out about the unknown—and a negative face, a hungering for knowledge that’s not satisfied (like children impatiently waiting to unwrap holiday presents that have been sitting out for weeks).
Among interest’s benefits is that it leads to learning (especially when followed by surprise). Students who are curious participate more, enjoy learning more, and score higher academically; the same is true for adults in the workplace.
Research also finds that people who experience more interest are more likely to report higher levels of positive emotion; more positive evaluations of one’s self, the world, and the future; more life satisfaction; and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Interest is also tied to empathy, and people who are empathic are more likely to be curious about others and want to connect.
Interest is hardwired in our brain via the seek and reward systems: Novelty activates dopamine, a reward-desire neurochemical that propels us to seek the answer; when we discover the answer, we experience satisfaction and often want to search more to keep the cycle going.
Amusement, generally defined as a happiness emotion that’s evoked by humor, helps us socialize (we bond over shared laughs), learn (it sparks interest, especially in children, who learn through play), and self-soothe. Amusement has its own facial expression—head tilted back, mouth in a parted smile — separate from contentment and happiness. And it has its own physiological profile: a slight increase in blood pressure — reflecting the tension at the heart of humor and play — and a lowering of heart rate, possibly because it’s triggering the calming system.
Funnily, laughter is not all about humor. Research finds we laugh 30 times more often with others than when we’re solo, and not just because we’re swapping jokes. Scientists theorize that laughter is a signal that communicates agreement, affiliation, and affection, all to reinforce social bonding.
We laugh in response to unfunny statements from our conversation partners and in response to other people’s laughter, something called antiphonal laughter. And the urge to laugh with others may involve mirror neurons (this mirroring happens as often for laughter as with yawning). We also laugh while we are conversing — in fact, people are more likely to laugh when they’re talking versus listening.
The ability to manufacture and feel amusement can help us tamp down a negative emotion, a type of emotional regulation. If we focus on what might be humorous about a distressful situation, we can shift our perspective and relieve stress. Laughter truly is good medicine: It’s linked with improved cardiovascular health, pain relief, and immune system functioning.
You know awe when you feel it: watching the sun set, being at a sports event with 10,000 other fans, experiencing a spiritual ritual. Scientists such as awe researcher Dacher Keltner, co-director of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California Berkeley, define awe as the emotion that occurs when your expectations are blown out of the water.
Awe transcends understanding and usually involves pleasure, although it can involve fear, as when witnessing a tornado. We can feel it when we’re alone, but we more often experience awe in groups. The relatively new study of this emotion has yielded awesome findings. It’s linked with strong relationships—it causes people to turn attention outside themselves and feel more connected. And so, awe serves a survival purpose: It binds individuals to the group, whether in ideology (a political party), goals (a team), cultural identity, or circumstance (survivors of a flood coming together). This social facet can have a dark side, however, provoking people to join fringe groups or cults.
Awe is also good for your health: A 2015 study found that, out of seven positive emotions, awe is the most strongly linked to low levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, an inflammatory response involved in chronic diseases like heart disease and depression. Pro-inflammatory cytokines can be beneficial if we’re injured, but when released chronically due to negative emotions, they can do damage.
Emotions are very complex and operate on many levels: through our facial and body movements, our autonomic nervous system (which controls involuntary functions such as heartbeat and breathing), our somatic nervous system (involving five senses and voluntary muscle movements), and in our conscious and subconscious minds. But one thing is clear: Emotions help us enjoy, make sense of, and survive this world.
Credit: National Geographic