Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Keep Laughing — It’s Powerful Stuff

As humans we are one of a few species that laughs and we laugh from the time we are babies. Our laughter spans age, gender, language and culture. As humans we make each other laugh and we emotionally respond to laughter in others. It goes without saying that our laughing is contagious.  People are 30 times more likely to laugh in social situations than alone.

We have not only been laughing since biblical times – we have been reporting benefits to mind and body:

“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Proverbs 17:22

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.” Michael Pritchard

“Laughter is a necessity in life that does not cost much, and the Old Ones say that one of the greatest healing powers in our life is the ability to laugh.” Larry P. Aitken, Native American Chippewa Tribe

We now have scientific evidence that what we suspected is true – laughter is physically, psychologically, and interpersonally powerful stuff.

The Study of Laughter

Gelotology is the study of laughter and its effects on the body, from a psychological and physiological perspective.  Scientifically, laughter is defined as the physiological respo­nse to humor which consists of gestures and the production of a sound which our brain directs us to conduct simultaneously. When we laugh, changes occur in our brains and our bodies.

Physiological Benefits

Researchers have found that laughter relaxes skeletal and cardiovascular muscles. The rapid breathing associated with laughter increases oxygen level and improves respiratory function. Laughter has been described as “internal jogging for all the major organs.”

  • Studies have found that laughter can improve clinical outcomes in disorders like asthma, cancer and heart disease by reducing the physiological stress response which exacerbates these conditions.
  • A study that compared 10 men assigned to either one hour of laughter or quiet time where blood samples were taken pre-trail, during and afterward, reported that the “quiet time” group showed no change, whereas “the laughter group” demonstrated a decrease in stress hormones.
  • A study that randomly assigned 40 participants to a humorous audiotape, a relaxation audiotape and a narrative audiotape found that laughter most significantly increased tolerance for pain.

Psychological Benefits

Laughter has been associated with reduction of stress, anxiety and improvement to mood, self-esteem and coping skills.

“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Jimmy Buffet

Most folks can more than relate to these sentiments. All of us have our own version of America’s Funniest Home Videos for which laughter was the only thing left to do – the necessary stress release valve.

  • When the kids all are hit with the stomach virus, the guests are arriving and the dog feels the need to run through the house to leave evidence of the crisis in every room, laughter becomes a way for horror, panic and helplessness to be released – harmlessly!
  • Given the body-mind connection, the very act of laughter changes body chemistry to our advantage. When we laugh, our brain releases endorphins – the feel good hormones of serotonin and dopamine that foster a sense of well being.
  • It’s not that we are suddenly thrilled – we are just able to get enough distance with a “You can’t make this up laugh,” to breathe and find a way to figure out the next step. Laughter is a resiliency tool for stress.

Interpersonal Connections

You may have had the experience of entering a room where people are laughing and before long you are laughing without even knowing why. It is connection without words.   Many researchers believe that the purpose of laughter is related to making and strengthening human connections.  The more laughter, the more bonding and the more laughter – this may account for the contagion in laughing. It gives us pause to wonder what is or isn’t happening in a family, an office – even a church where there is no laughter.

“As a general rule, the freedom of any people can be judged by the volume of their laughter.”
– Anonymous

Why We Laugh?

We know that although we all laugh, what we find funny can differ. It is often a function of age, gender, culture, experience and circumstance. Those studying laughter propose three theories for what we find humorous:

  • Incongruity theory – we laugh when there are two thoughts or emotions put together that we don’t expect( the comedian who is trying to lose weight quickly by only eating fast food).
  • Superiority theory – we laugh at what makes us feel superior  ( the dating debacles on our favorite sitcom).
  • Relief Theory – we laugh at something that creates tension or stress that we spontaneously release in laughter (watching the bride and groom in a wedding video trip and fall off the altar into the fountain).

Cruelty Disguised as Laughter – when laughter is a cover for hostility, envy or disdain it is not funny. Laughing at the expense of someone else, at someone who doesn’t find it funny is assaultive– it creates stress and benefits no one.

“Laughter is the Shortest Distance between Two People” Victor Borge

Recently a woman, who together with her partner of many years has been trying to salvage a very devastated marriage, reported that  “Something different is happening – We are laughing. We never laughed.”

  • Laughter is integral to intimacy because laughing means risking being emotionally touched by another.
  • Laughter is intimate because it is transformative in physical and emotional ways.
  • Laughter is a mutually shared moment in time.
  • Laughter enhances connection -the insider joke, the hysterics shared in a place where no one else is laughing, embodies the feeling “We get each other and we are moved to laugh in a similar way.”
  • Laughter is restorative. In the aftermath of trauma, anger or pain, the spontaneous mutual laugh at the baby covered with food or the pet redesigning the plants is physical connection. It is often the first step back.

“We cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.”
Agnes Repplier

The value of laughter has become so recognized that it has been formerly offered as Laughter Therapy, Laughter Meditation, Humor Therapy and the World Laughter Tour. All promote the recognition and use of laughter as a personal coping skill, a resiliency factor and a therapeutic agent for physical, psychological and social well being.

Are You Making Use of The Benefits of Laughter?

Who makes you laugh? Who do you make laugh? It’s like sharing vitamins

Can you laugh at yourself? It actually equates to self-acceptance and forgiveness. If you can laugh when you find the cream cheese in the sock drawer – you know it’s going to be a good day.

Do you have a favorite and predictable source of laughter be it a sitcom, cartoon, radio show or website that gives you a daily dose of “aerobic humor?”

Can you find the humor in absurd situations? According to Erma Bombeck – If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.

Do you have reminders around you (calendars, screen savers, quotes etc.) that actually shift your mood and trigger laughter. Given the different arguments about what was edible in the refrigerator of one family, the mother posted a magnetized sign on the refrigerator door “If it walks out- Let it go.”

Do you look for opportunities to share something funny? Re-visiting and sharing situations or material that is funny to you generally invites sharing by others – it turns a group into a party. It turns an email into a back and forth chuckle.

Can you look toward your children as sources of genuine delight and laughter? A good laugh is sunshine in a house.

Do you appreciate the daily dose of laughter most pets provide? Dogs laugh back with their tails! Cats don’t let us know they are laughing.

Do you carry laughter everywhere you go? Try it.

Laughter Is An Inexhaustible Resource That We All Share.

Keep Laughing – It’s Powerful Stuff.