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The Powerful Link Between Laughter and Mental Health

Who doesn’t love a good laugh?

Even when it’s in the middle of being angry or sad, laughter can be beneficial.  It can change moods in an instant.  This happens in great movies also.  One minute you are crying and then the character says something funny and the whole audience is switching to a different emotion. The swith mental health in the followinch is so automatic and quick we don’t even realize just how amazing our brains are.

So why don’t we offer our brains a more consistent source of humor more often?

It is obvious to us that if we surround ourselves with depressing people and activities, we are likely to become depressed.  Therefore, it should be just as obvious to us to know that if we surround ourselves with upbeat people doing positive activities, we will in turn be happy.

It is just not that easy.

And it may not be completely healthy to stay happy all of the time.  Having a good balance of emotions is what each person should strive for in their daily routines.

Below you will find answers to the questions of why laughter is important, how our body operates while laughing, the downside of laughter, and how laughter can be used in therapy, all of which link to our mental health.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

“Laughter is the Best Medicine” is no longer just a quote used to coach people into feeling better.  It is a researched and studied area by doctors and psychologists who are finding there is great evidence that in fact, laughter is medicine that can be used to change the mental and physical well-being of their patients.  In the article, Laughter is the Best Medicine, the author connects laughter with mental health in the following ways:

  • It is hard to feel negative emotions while laughing
  • Stress is reduced when laughing
  • Energy increases while laughing
  • Helps engage others socially which allows you to be less overwhelmed and more spontaneous and confident
  • Releases endorphins
  • Eases Anxiety
  • Improves overall mood and functioning

What is Laughter and How Does it Happen?

So just what is laughter?  Is it an emotion, an action, a reaction?

In a report by The University of Kentucky, laughter is defined as an “outward expression of amusement.”  This report also calls laughter an emotional medicine due to its ability to reduce stress, anger and loneliness. This makes laughter different than humor, which is the action that makes a person laugh.

Although you can force yourself to produce a laugh without having a humorous trigger, it is much easier to enjoy the laughter when it is spontaneous.

The Laughter Online University reports both the limbic system and the hypothalamus are involved with the emotion of laughter, as well as all other emotions.

To further research on laughter, Dr. Peter McGraw has created a humor research lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  It is here they research how humor affects our decision making, our well-being, emotions, judgments and psychological systems.  He wrote a book called the Humor Code that discusses their findings which support the idea that laughter causes bodily reactions that enhance feeling good reactions.

A few of the benefits of smiling and laughing include the following:

  • Smiling, even fake smiling or laughing, can release endorphins in the brain which in turn tells us to feel happy.
  • Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is reduced when we smile and laugh
  • Laughing expands the lungs, allowing oxygen to flow to the lungs and it also exercises muscles within the body
  • A good way to let go of emotions that have been suppressed
  • Social interactions are important to well-being and laughter can help draw in or attract people to you.

Laughter as a Therapy Technique

The most successful therapist is most likely the one that makes a patient feel great and teaches them how to be happy.

It seems a little confusing as to why most therapists simply sit and listen to their patients talk about their problems and offer advice when necessary.  And with mental health problems on the rise, it may be time to switch techniques to include actual methods and instruction showing the patient how to be happy.  Making the client laugh during a therapy session is key.

The Online Journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network suggests laughter can be used during therapy sessions to create a more relaxed environment.  In addition, using laughter in therapy can enhance communication and make the therapist and client feel more comfortable.

Laughter as Therapy is an article that provides insightful information into the use of laughter.  The author claims that laughter is what our body uses to battle the negative aspects that appear within us such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders.  It is also suggested that laughter can give the same effects as cocaine, giving the brain a feel good sense that signals the rest of the body as well to feel good.

The movie “Patch Adams” was inspired by the life of Dr. Hunter Campbell.  He realized the importance of compassion and laughter and opened what is now the Gesundheit Institute.  It is here they train doctors to have compassion and engage in activities such as clowning trips to hospitals and prisons. He says laughter as medicine should be implemented everywhere and has been proven effective in the healing process.  At the Gesundheit Institute doctors learn to simply care more about their patients and help patients integrate creativity and humor into their healing plan.  This would be such a wonderful technique for more doctors to use, making the entire office visit more pleasant.

Watch this CNN video on why Happiness is Healthy. Studies reported on say that happiness can help a person live longer. However, it also reports that we may not have complete control over our entire happiness. Meaning, other factors go into just how happy a person can be.  These include genetics and environment.

Laughter can happen in several different ways.  In the Therapeutics Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health there are distinct categories of laughter listed. These include:

  • Spontaneous laughter that happens in the spur of the moment and can be unexpected and that is created by some sort of humor or positive experience.
  • Simulated laughter happens when it is self-induced and planned and has nothing to do with spontaneity or humor. One study introduced simulated laughing to participants and measured their cortisol levels. They found the group with the experimental laughing simulations did in fact have a reduction in cortisol levels when compared to the control group.  They called the program the Laughing Qigong Program.
  • Stimulated laughter happens because of some external force, such as being tickled.
  • Induced laughter appears when an external substance such as marijuana, alcohol or even laughing gas.
  • Pathological laughter takes place when there has been neurological damage of some sort and creates laughter at the wrong time or inappropriate laughter in relation to the situation. There is even a particular disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, as reported in the Psychological Advisor. Better known as PBA, this refers to the sudden outbursts of crying or laughter that does not truly reflect the internal emotions the personal is feeling.

Life skills Coach, Madeleine Baldiserra, adds to the information that laughter is beneficial to mental health.  She makes an important point, when you are laughing, it is hard to be angry or stressed. Try it. It is very difficult to be truly upset when you are genuinely laughing.  She also adds that laughing can tear down defensive walls, end fights, help you maintain focus and get your job done.

We know that social anxiety is a major mental health stressor.  According to the Social Anxiety Institute, laughter should be a big part of therapy to help clients dealing with social anxiety.  At the institute they have groups where participants are instructed to stand and laugh.  What they found is that laughing helps break down barriers and makes people feel more connected and more willing to share.

Motivational speaker, Jody Urkuhart, also claims laughter has many benefits to the entire body, especially mental health. She states laughter helps a person become resilient by learning how to overcome stress and rebound from stressful situations.

The Downside of Laughter

One question arises when linking laughter to mental health well-being.

Why do so many comedians suffer from depression, personality disorders, drug overdoses and even suicide?  Entertainers such as Robin Williams seem to have the perfect life.  Yet after a tragedy such as suicide, we find out they suffer just like those not in the entertainment industry.  He is a perfect example that not even money and fame can make our internal mental health systems function properly.

Time Magazine reported on this very topic. Oxford University conducted a study on over 500 comedians. What they found was that the factors a person needs to create humor to make other people laugh is very similar to the cognitive elements in people with psychosis.  It is further suggested that comedians have found a way of self-medicating by producing jokes and acts that create humor, alleviating their own mental health issues for a short period.  It is almost as if being on stage gave them a high that temporarily alleviated their disorder.  Much the same as with the student who is bullied or smaller than the rest of the kids who tends to also be the class clown.  They use humor to divert peers from treating them poorly.  And it usually works.

How to Laugh More

You have read all of the positive things about laughter and how it can benefit both your physical and psychological health.  So go ahead and get started laughing.  It’s that easy, right?  If you don’t find yourself breaking out into spontaneous laughter, there are other actions you can take to get laughter and get happy.  And you can start today adding more laughter and more positivity into your daily routine.  Personal Safety Nets suggests ways to do just this:

  • Get a Pet. Believe it or not there are studies that show having a pet increases happiness and reduces stress.
  • When you are talking to a friend or a group of people, find ways to insert humor into your conversations.
  • Don’t hang out with negative people. Choose to hang out with positive, fun people who are going to make you smile and have a good time, not drag you down.

Yoga is an activity that involves both the mind and the body.  The author states there are two types of laughter, one coming from the body and one coming from the mind.  He claims children laugh with the body while adults laugh with their minds.  It is important to get adults to go back to laughing with the body and the mind. By activating laughter, a person can overcome physical and mental issues within the body.  There are even specific yoga poses for creating laughter, including:

  • Greeting Laughter
  • Lion Laughter
  • Humming Laughter
  • Silent Laughter
  • Gradient Laughter
  • Heart to Heart Laughter

These poses seem much easier to do than some of the traditional poses used in yoga and with similar beneficial results.

People generally want to be happy and engage with positive people in stress-free situations.  Not only can you change your habits of laughter but by learning how to tell a joke, you can help others laugh more also. If you aren’t a natural joke writer, watch this video of Jerry Seinfeld giving step by step instructions on creating a joke.

There is enough research supporting the use of laughter to improve our mental well-being. Many researchers have proven that laughter can have a positive impact on physical and psychological health. Some doctors even claim laughter helps people overcome serious medical conditions. The problem- we just don’t get enough laughter each day. There are many solutions to this problem including seeking out a therapist who uses laughter techniques during sessions, yoga therapy, watching funny movies and TV shows, learning how to write and deliver jokes, and even attending the online Laughter University.  The only thing left to do is to seek happiness.