Have you ever heard of gelotology? I certainly hadn’t. Gelotology is the study of humor and laughter and their effects on our body and psychology. In a nutshell, humor and laughter are powerfully beneficial and very worth cultivating in our lives.
Physiologically, hearty laughter is a full body exercise, involving contraction and relaxation of multiple sets of muscles: face, chest, abdomen, diaphragm and limbs. During laughter, our respirations and heart rate increase, pulling in lots of oxygen. Afterwards, our muscles relax, blood pressure and heart rate fall below baseline, and a calm, relaxed state ensues. Laughter lowers stress hormones and appears to stimulate endorphin release and improve immune functioning.
Laughter (and smiling) is actually contagious. Scientists have begun to uncover a neurophysiological basis to this: the sound of laughter triggers activity in specific brain regions that influence facial muscles involved in laughing and smiling. Hearing laughter also sparks the release of endorphins. And studies also show that when people laugh together, they feel more connected to each other, they like each other more and experience enhanced positive emotions.
It’s therefore clear that not only do positive mood states such as joy and happiness bring on laughter and smiling, it’s a two-way street. Laughter and smiling in and of themselves can induce positive feelings. (In contrast, the act of frowning can lead to feelings of sadness. The use of Botox to prevent frowning resulted in improved mood in depressed patients in several studies).
In addition to the rewarding physiological effects of laughter, humor can serve as a helpful coping skill.
In the mental health field, humor is considered a “mature” defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are psychological processes that protect against painful emotions such as anxiety and sadness. They can be classified on a spectrum from less mature (such as outright denial of reality) to more adaptive (such as altruism and humor). Defense mechanisms, including humor, can have positive or negative impacts depending on the person and the context. For example, people could “jokingly” make fun of others to defend against their own sense of inferiority or lack of self-confidence.
For the most part, however, humor is seen as a more adaptive. People with a sense of humor are generally more resilient, better able to cope with life’s slings and arrows. In general, their mental and physical health is better, and they have larger and stronger social support networks.
Recognizing the irony in a situation and laughing at oneself (in a healthy way) can help us face difficult life situations we cannot control. It can help us to reframe things when we are feeling stuck, to look at a problem with a different perspective, to see new connections between things and think more creatively. With improved problem-solving, we can feel freer, less stuck. Noting the incongruity in a situation can sometimes allow us to envision a different outcome.
Humor can also connect us to others, including finding comfort in a shared experience of suffering; we are not alone. It can also be a way to elicit help from others by providing a more comfortable approach when we feel hesitant about opening up to someone about a problem or need.
However, humor can be counterproductive if it is deployed in a way which minimizes or denies our distress so others are not aware that we are in need of support. And it can damage relationships and increase social isolation if it’s a demeaning, mocking, or aggressive humor.
There is evidence for a broad range of beneficial effects of humor. People with a sense of humor generally have greater life satisfaction, pleasure, engagement in life, and a more stable positive mood. Studies of college students have found that those with a positive sense of humor reported better self-esteem, lower anxiety levels, and higher levels of engagement, creativity and learning. At work, humor improves relationships, work performance, satisfaction, creativity, collaboration, and team bonding. It’s also associated with reduced burnout and stress. In the elderly, a sense of humor predicts improved quality of life, reduced agitation, increased happiness, and stronger social support. In children, benefits include better peer relationships, self-esteem, coping skills, and adjustment to college.
Comedy can be a way for us to address and process painful topics. Examples from film and T.V. include war (M*A*S*H), death (Death at a Funeral; Harold and Maude), politics (VEEP), phobias (High Anxiety), and relationship anxiety/the fear of being alone (every romantic comedy ever).
So, here’s some serious advice for your health:
Schedule in regular watching of funny movies and TV shows and/or reading of funny books. Read New Yorker cartoons, watch Elaine dance on Seinfeld, or watch Michael and Dwight drive into a lake while blindly following their GPS on The Office. (And there’s always Young Frankenstein.) Try to find the humor in day-to-day situations and share it with others. And spend time with funny people. No joke!