08 Aug 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: We're not joking - laughter really can be the best medicine!

Laughing children

Funny fact: young children laugh several hundred times a day!

THERE is no doubt that the past few years have brought many unprecedented challenges to us all, from the Covid-19 pandemic, to more recently the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis.
As we navigate each of these challenges (alongside our own individual life stresses) many people are experiencing increased anxiety, stress and depression.
We are seeing this in our private practices and this picture is being reflected in mental health services nationally and indeed internationally.
So, in our view we all need to work at building a “toolkit” of little strategies to boost our emotional wellbeing and resilience when times are tough.
Laughter is definitely one of the positive strategies which is good for us, especially at times when it may feel like life is not giving us much to laugh about.
In this article, we will explore some of the reasons why laughter really can be “the best medicine”, followed by some tips and suggestions to help us laugh a little more when life is challenging.
Scientific research investigating the health benefits of laughter has only begun in the past few decades but many of the findings are encouraging. Below we will summarise some of the key ones.

Laughter helps reduce stress
Laughter reduces levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals in the body. It also increases the level of feel-good chemicals called endorphins.
Basically, when we are laughing heartily, we will not feel stressed at the same time as the laughter response is incompatible with the stress (fight-or-flight) response.

Laughter boosts the immune system
Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells in the body and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. Both of these are important in strengthening our immune system.

Laughter gives our muscles a 'workout' and helps reduce physical tension
Laughter contracts the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm muscle, the shoulders and other muscle groups so that they can let go of tension for up to 45 minutes. Laughter also causes us to breathe in more oxygen, therefore stimulating the lungs and heart.

Laughter can play a role in pain and sleep management
Studies show that laughter can contribute to pain reduction, both physically and psychologically so that fewer painkillers are needed. It can also play a role in improving sleep.

Laughter helps us connect with others
Most of us know that laughter is contagious. When someone else laughs heartily, we will often find ourselves laughing too, sometimes even when we don’t know what they are laughing about.
Laughter helps us emotionally connect with other people and share positive feelings.

Laughter gives us perspective and helps us manage difficult emotions
Humour and laughter can help give us a more light-hearted perspective on serious situations. This can reduce our stress response and help us to view difficulties as challenges rather than as threatening. Laughter also helps improve the mood, so we are less inclined to focus on feelings of anger, stress, guilt and other difficult emotions.

The above snapshot from scientific research on laughter certainly suggests that actively seeking out and making time for a good laugh is worthwhile for our emotional wellbeing, especially at times when life seems grey and stressful. Studies show that young children generally laugh several hundred times a day, but as adults our negative bias seems to kick in, so the average adult laughs less than 20 times a day. Therefore, as adults, most of us need to create opportunities for lightness and laughter.
The following are some ideas for bringing more laughter into our lives, when we may be feeling stressed or grumpy.

Build a little store of things that make you laugh
When we are stressed or distressed, our natural inclination is not to look for things that are humorous, so it is a good idea to put a few simple items such as photos and cards that make you laugh in a place where you can easily find them, for example, in a drawer, or pinned to a board. Having some books of jokes or funnies close to hand is also worth doing, just make sure that the type of humour is one you personally enjoy.

Find comedy online or on TV
Nowadays, there are countless funny movies, sitcoms, sketches, memes etc available online or on television. It is a good idea to find the types that suits your sense of humour. We all have our personal tastes and watching comedy that we don’t find funny can actually be quite irritating.

Connect with others who have a light-hearted approach and see the funny side to situations
Some people naturally make us laugh and tend to see the funny side of many situations. It is well worth seeking out the company of people who do this, rather than those who tend to focus almost exclusively on the negative. Many people who work in very challenging environments, for example, prison officers or emergency department staff, may cultivate a darkly humorous way of viewing difficult situations and this can be supportive of their mental health.

Fake it till you make it
Research shows that the body cannot tell the difference between genuine laughter and “faked”
laughter where we just laugh artificially and the physical benefits are actually the same. Often when we put on or force a laugh, we find that it leads to real laughter anyway. One option for doing this is to try “laughter yoga” which was originally developed by an Indian doctor Madan Kataria in 1995.
Laughter yoga is often practised in groups but like so many other activities we can also engage with it online. We must admit we had quite a laugh from just looking at some videos of laughter yoga on Youtube!

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland (Find a Psychologist section) or
on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.

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