Are You Laughing? Humour and Health

Humour is a funny thing (no pun intended!).  What one person thinks is hilarious, another person barely breaks a smile.  What’s counts as humour in one culture, is seen as insulting in another.

Not only is humour tricky, we hold certain beliefs about it’s value–especially regarding our health.  In this post we’ll explore three areas of belief about humour’s effect on mental and physical health:  popular culture, science and personal experience.

Laughter:  The Best Medicine

Much of our beliefs about humour and health are thanks to Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990), an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.  Norman believed in a link between emotions and the successful fight against illness.  When diagnosed with a crippling connective tissue disease, he tried to alleviate his pain by watching television comedy.  Norman discovered that laughter helped to decrease his pain levels for a period of time.  He continued this practice until he was cured and went on to write a collection of best-selling non-fiction books on illness and healing.

As a culture, we now attribute laughter to being able to:

  • strengthen our immune system
  • improve our mood through the release of endorphins
  • lessen feelings of anger
  • reduce pain
  • decrease stress.

Laughter is thought to provide these benefits even when we don’t find something to be funny. Enter laughter yoga…a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter. It’s based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact, jokes and playfulness between participants. Apparently, forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter.  If you’re curious, you can find out more here.

What Science Suggests

Originally, when I started thinking about this post, I naturally assumed–based on common thought–that comedy was good for our mental health.  However, as I researched, I learned that the study results are inconclusive.  Some find no correlation between boosts in psychical or mental health and humour, others that there are minor improvements and still others that suggest any improvement is short-lived.

There is even some thought that Norman Cousins illness was misdiagnosed and his ‘cure’ would have occurred given enough time.

It looks as if the scientific jury is still out!

The Value of Personal Experience

As my old aunt used to say, “The proof in the pudding is in the eating!”  In other words, try it for yourself to see if it works.  So it is with the benefits of humour for mental and physical health.  At the end of the day, usually what we care most about is what works for us and the people that we love.  Treat the effects of humour on your life as a personal science experiment.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the effect of humour by watching myself, loved ones and clients:

  • Laughter feels good.  There’s nothing like a full belly laugh to bring on physical relaxation.  If having a good cry is on one side of the coin, a good laugh is on the other.
  • Laughter can be contagious (or not).  There is an old story that I am guaranteed to laugh at whenever I tell it…often to the point of being unable to continue to share it because I’m overcome with a fit of giggles.  Usually others don’t find it funny…maybe it’s my delivery!
  • Sharing humour strengthens relationships.  When we laugh with others we are sharing a common experience, which leads to positive memories.  Even when we share a lighthearted moment with a stranger there is a connection.
  • Laughter helps diffuse conflict.  There have been times in couple therapy when during a heated moment, one of the partners is able to step out of the argument and see some humour.  When the other partner is open to this, the mood lightens, attitudes shift and there is a moment of healing.
  • Dark humour can be helpful.  Even when things feel really bleak, being able to laugh (not at anyone’s expense) can help make things a bit more bearable.

The ability to experience humour is an important human characteristic.  It makes life more fun…and we all know that we can use more of that!

And now…here’s some classic comedy to tickle your funny bone.  Enjoy!

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