By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer
REGION – Laughter is the best medicine as the old adage goes, but maybe there is really something to humor as a form of mood elevator. Humor and exposure to jokes, memes, books, movies and shows that tickle our funny bone does seem to make us feel better.
But what does the research and science say on the subject? Are there some concrete, actionable steps we can take to inject a little humor into our everyday lives and improve our outlook even when the chips are down?
Dr. Carl Marci, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital, said it’s important to draw a distinction between humor and laughter. “Laughter is the universal stereotype, species-specific—meaning that humans are the only ones who do it—behavior that is not primarily related to humor, joking or even ridicule,” he explained. “But rather we know that it serves a key role in social relationships and communications. Humans laugh 30 times more frequently in social settings than in isolation. And the timing of laughter during conversation is not arbitrary. In fact it’s highly ordered and consistent.”
He cited a study involving laughter in over 1,200 episodes observing college students in a student union during their natural flow of conversation. It determined that laughter by the speaker almost exclusively followed complete sentences or questions.
“You’re giving a little punctuation—an emphasis to the comment—to send a social signal,” stated Marci. “The point here is that the physiological effects of laughter do not require humor. I like to think of laughter in a social interaction as a kind of exclamation point.”
How humor affects our brain
Dr. Marci explained that when you examine humor’s impact on brain chemistry and function in a clinical environment between a therapist and a patient as he has done, you can clearly observe an increase in arousal driven by what’s called the sympathetic nervous system. “As our nervous system turns on, sends electrical impulses through it, you can measure that using simple electrodes on the fingers,” he noted. “And we saw a significant increase during laughter—interestingly, not just with the person who is laughing but the person who is with them.”
In other words, just watching someone else laugh can boost your mood. “The more people laugh, the higher the arousal.” This is why comedy sitcoms have laugh tracks, noted Marci. “Because they know, and have figured out and intuited, that if you get a bunch of people laughing, it becomes a little contagious. So laughter is contagious.” He added that unsurprisingly the parts of the brain being stimulated during laughter are the emotion and reward centers.
Humor is a perspective
Steve Wilson, a retired psychologist, author, professional speaker, humor educator and founder of the World Laughter Tour, teaches and trains people worldwide about the field of therapeutic humor and laughter and humor’s benefits to our mental and physical well-being. Known as “The Joyologist,” Wilson, who founded the nonprofit Laughter Arts & Sciences Foundation and serves as the director of National Humor Month (held each April), provides educational tools through programs, workshops, speaking events and web resources.
Wilson held his inaugural World Laughter Tour workshop in 2000 and has since taught his curriculum to thousands globally. “I really felt like I had a calling,” he said of the program. “It’s my mission in life. Humor is a shock absorber. The road of life is full of potholes. Humor’s a perspective. Humor can show you how to lighten up instead of tighten up.”
Elaborating on how to bring more humor into our daily lives, Wilson emphasized that it’s about seeing the world in a certain way and examining different sides of things that happen to you. “It keeps you healthier. Humor perspective is a balance against the effects of stress.”
Tips for bringing more humor and laughter into our daily lives
So how do we reap the benefits of humor? Wilson recommends allotting ourselves five minutes a day for humor. He suggests breaking them down into five “one-minute humor breaks.” It could be something as simple as keeping a book of cartoons in your drawer or collecting funny anecdotes. Another suggestion is to surround yourself with people who make you laugh.
Wilson acknowledged that some humor can be hurtful or even insulting, which is why the World Laughter Tour advocates the positive aspects of humor. “The richest laughter is at no one’s expense,” asserted Wilson.
He further advised that people learn to “take the joke on yourself,” and “have a sense of humor about yourself,” to be self-deprecating but to also “be kind to yourself.” “That’s a perspective,” added Wilson. “Technically it’s called psychological distance. It’s when you create distance from your problems.”
Dr. Marci emphasized the significance of social interaction, and reaching out to friends, whether that means spending time in person, over the phone or virtually on Zoom or Facetime. “Laughter will follow,” he said. People can also experiment with watching comedies on the internet that match their sense of humor. “It would be even better if you shared that experience with someone.”
While Dr. Marci is unaware of any studies that show a relationship between laughter and healing, he did qualify, “we know from research that human social interaction can improve symptoms of depression. And to the extent that laughter facilitates human social interaction, I would say by extension you could argue that laughter has healing powers for not only anxiety and depression, but what ails many during the pandemic—loneliness.”
And though there is no scientific evidence that humor or laughter cures anything, there is research indicating that laughter strengthens the immune system, increases oxygen flow and reduces stress through the release of endorphins, those chemicals that make us feel happy and relieve pain, noted Wilson.
“If we can hang onto a healthy sense of humor for life, we’re going to feel so much better,” he said.