If the last year has taught us anything, one big lesson is: laughter is an essential saving grace. Laughter — and the human connection that comes with it — is not only great for mental health but for physical health and healing as well. Just like eating your veggies and getting good rest and daily exercise, adding frequent doses of laughter to the mix is an easy and pleasurable way to support the health of your heart and brain, while lightening some of life’s darker moments. Plus it’s safer than any Big Pharma pill-of-the-moment. Over the years, I’ve seen laughter in action in my practice on an almost daily basis — patients with a good sense of humor tend to heal better and faster than those who don’t.
In the words of the great 19th century humorist Mark Twain, “humor is mankind’s greatest blessing,” and one of life’s greatest gifts, so laugh every chance you get.
Seriously though, why laugh? Here are a few of the reasons why I prescribe laughter for everybody, and how and why to do more of it every day:
Laughter is your on-tap health elixir.
Just like the old adage has it, laughter really does make great medicine. Moreover, researchers have found a number of wonderful ‘side-effects’ it provides. In fact, research shows that laughter stimulates chemical changes in the brain that help protect against the harmful effects of chronic stress, something we can all benefit from. Think of boosting your laughter intake as being akin to taking a daily medication, only one that’s healthy and enjoyable! What else happens when you laugh? Each ‘dose’ you take helps to:
– instantly boost mood in a positive direction
– stimulate the chemical changes in the brain that help buffer our bodies against the cumulative effects of stress
– curb inflammation, which helps promote a healthier brain, heart and circulatory system
– encourage the release of endorphins, the mood-elevating brain chemicals behind the “runner’s high”
– boost the immune system, increasing the activity of those all-important “killer T-cells” which help our bodies fight off pathogens
– lower blood pressure and cortisol levels; ease pain sensitivity, and help stabilize blood sugar
– ease and release tension in the muscles of the face, neck, shoulders and belly – all common spots where tension accumulates
– encourage a light calorie burn, with 10 – 15 minutes’ worth of laughs each day netting roughly a 40 calorie burn
– provide a light workout for the heart, lungs, diaphragm and abdominal muscles
Schedule some serious laughing time.
While impromptu laughs are great – it’s said that most adults do it an average of 17 times a day – it’s easy to up your giggle game and benefit overall well-being to boot. Granted, short video clips and memes are great for quick hits of laughter during the day, but to get a more concentrated dose, consider dedicating an evening or two a week to streaming a funny movie, series or stand-up special. Keep a list of old favorites and new go-to’s on your phone so you can pull them up quickly when you’re not in the mood to sift through all your streaming services for something to watch. Another reason to schedule some sure-fire laughs at the end of the day? In addition to providing some unwinding and togetherness time for family and friends, it will also encourage a good night’s sleep. Turns out, a good laugh relaxes the muscles, which can make it easier to drift off. Do, however, resist the urge to binge watch, no matter how compelling all those episodes of Schitt’s Creek or Arrested Development may be. Commit to pulling the plug on whatever you’re watching at least 2 hours before you need to fall asleep, so your screen time doesn’t impact your sleep time. Need some comedic viewing inspiration? A couple of good lists to start off with include Esquire’s Best Comedies to Stream on Netflix Right Now, Marie Claire’s Best Comedy Movies of 2021 (So Far) and IMBD’s Top 100 Funniest movies list.
Laugh your way back into office life.
With jobs beginning to migrate from home back to the traditional office, many people are feeling anxious about the return. How to ease the transition to the new normal office life (whatever that may look like) and start the day on a more positive note? Trade your morning drive-time news chatter for comedic podcasts or radio. Doing so can relieve tension, lift spirits and put your mind and body at ease, the perfect, drug-free antidote to being stressed out by traffic. Need your news fix? By all means, dig in, but not first thing. Instead, try saving the (bad) news for a brief coffee break or lunch-time catchup.
Giggle more at home too.
Not commuting yet? If you’re still spending a lot of time at home, either on your own or with family, take everyone’s stress level down a notch here too. Instead of blaring the nightly news, crank up the funny stuff instead. Just as watching the news first thing in the morning can get you off on the wrong foot (or at least a very agitated one), tuning into great stand-up comedy shows or humor-focused podcasts while doing chores, making dinner, doing dishes, etc., will encourage smiles and laughter and help make even the most mundane tasks more fun. Again, it’s a fine idea to know what’s going on in the world, but news overexposure can be scary for the kids, and have a negative impact on your head and your heart. So, for eveyone’s mental and physical benefit, keep the funny flowing.
Find your funny tribe.
Just as laughter is infectious, the opposite is also true. The moods and attitudes of others can easily spread to you, so the more funny or upbeat people you make time for, the better for you. Now, I’m not saying you have to cut your more chuckle-averse friends from your social roster, but, at the risk of being a little selfish, you might consider how much time you spend with those folks and try to strike a better balance. Laughing in a group of like-minded people adds a wonderful sense of communion and connection — plus a nice rush of feel-good endorphins, so take advantage.
Observe humor and embrace it.
Some people are funny from the jump, but that may not be you. The good news is that humor is a skill, which means, it’s learnable. For those who aren’t quick with a quip or have difficulty reading social cues, a good place to start honing your skills is simply following the lead of others, observing their reactions. Crack a smile or laugh when they do (no need to over-do it though). This simple mirroring technique helped one of my patients, who’d grown up in a laugh-free culture, learn how to laugh more and eventually develop her own sense of humor. You can also try reading up on how to develop a sense of humor, check out a few YouTube videos and TED Talks, take an improv class or study the work of popular stand-up comedians and humorists. Even if you don’t quite get the jokes initially, you’ll still benefit from learning to laugh more – studies show that the mere act of smiling can alter your mood.
Know your skills – and your audience.
There’s no shortage of stand-up comedians out there spewing some fairly sarcastic and mean-spirited stuff. Recycling their lines (attributed or not) may not win you any popularity points. So, lean towards humor that fosters camaraderie, builds good will, offers perspective or amicably breaks tension. Always avoid making jokes at the expense of others — verbal barbs you might consider funny can deeply wound some folks, so in the real world, kindness counts. Remember that the goal of good humor is to create more good humor, which is something everyone can benefit from.