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Science Agrees You Need Laughter

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What does a baby computer call its father? “Data!” While a (literal) dad joke like this may seem eye-roll worthy at best, humor (or more specifically amusement) is a powerful positive emotion. Laughter releases tension—similar to a good cry. Stanford researcher William Fry even calls laughter “internal jogging.” Fry, who dedicated thirty years to research on laughter and humor, found that laughter elevates our heart rate and blood pressure, improving circulation. He explains that “a day’s worth of hearty laughter is about equal to ten minutes on the rowing machine.1” The joke at the beginning of this paragraph wasn’t just comedy gold; it was a chance for your body to get a mini workout. Your mind may have benefitted from this as well.

In fact, research shows that the average person who engages in humorous activities is more likely to feel happier and experience fewer symptoms of depression2. Participating in more humorous activities is even linked to feeling more in control of one’s life, feeling more optimistic, and generally feeling more positive emotions of any kind—such as joy, peace, and excitement3. The year 2020 may make laughter seem like a low priority. However, don’t be too quick to avoid a daily chuckle. Humor can even reduce anxiety and stress levels4, improve your immune system5, and contribute to better recovery after physical illness6. In this way, humor can protect us in difficult times.

A little release from the daily tensions and struggles of 2020 can be a powerful way to give your body a break from fight or flight mode. Instead, it gives you a chance to release growing tension and welcome in positive feelings like joy and love, even if only for a moment. As a result of this, the more opportunities you can find to smile and laugh—especially in darker times—the better your body and mind may feel. To start your humor workout, try some of these research-backed activities below.

Activity 1: More Humor, Please!

Timing:

As often as you can!

How To:

  1. Practice becoming more mindful of the humor already in your life. Notice the things that make you smile or laugh, and when these experiences occur.
  2. Then, either create more opportunities to experience the humor that already exists in your life, or simply add new humorous activities to your daily workout. For instance:
    • Look up funny animal clips on YouTube,
    • Try out a funny comic (I personally recommend Pinky and the Brain),
    • Give yourself 5 minutes to watch comedic TikToks, or
    • Play a fun game with friends (for socially distanced fun, I recommend Fishbowl).
  3. If you can, try counting how many funny things happen each day and note down the number each evening. Everyone is different, but try to notice if you feel better on days where funnier things happen.

Activity 2: Recollecting Funny Memories

Timing:

5-10 minutes, 1 time per day

How To:

  1. Pick a memory of one of the funniest things that have ever happened to you. This could be a time you cracked up endlessly over a funny joke your best friend told you in middle school health class, or maybe a TV show/movie that made you laugh so hard that you cried for hours (e.g., Have you checked out Brooklyn 99, yet? Modern Family?)
  2. Then, write down your memory in as much detail as possible. What happened? Who was involved? What was said or done that led to laughter or amusement?

Activity 3: Solving Stressful Situations in Humorous Ways

Timing:

5-10 minutes, 1 time per day

How To:

Think about a stressful experience that happened today. How could this experience been resolved in a humorous way? How could you have used humor to lessen the stress of this situation? For example:

  1. If you were stressed out today because you had to go to the dentist, what humorous things could you have watched or read in the waiting room (or, nowadays, in your car)? This could be an opportunity to browse through a humorous blog, read some funny tweets, or watch an SNL clip on your phone—anything that adds humor into a stressful situation that day!
  2. Maybe you’re stressed about a class or work meeting you have to attend later. If possible, could you tell a joke at the start of the meeting to give everyone an opportunity to laugh, or joke around with a friend before class starts?

If you didn’t add humor into your day during a stressful time, then take a moment to think about how you could have added more humor into that stressful situation. What could you have done to make it a more laughter-filled day?

Stressful situations can often lead us into unhappy, anxiety-filled places very quickly. While humorous situations won’t make all our troubles disappear, taking a break to smile can go a long way. To thrive, we have to find ways to be resilient and make the best out of our day. Humor is one way to fill our hours with just a bit more joy and laughter—positive emotions that can make us more resilient to stress during difficult times. 

As always, try out each activity and see which one hits your funny bone the hardest! Everyone might have more fun using different activities, and that’s 100% okay. And now, one more (potential) smile before we close: Did you hear the rumor about butter? Never mind, I shouldn’t spread it.


References

1. Fry, William (1979). Mirth and the human cardiovascular system, in H. Mirdess and J. Turek (eds), The Study of Humor (Los Angeles, CA: Antioch University Press, 1979), pp. 56-61.

2. Wellenzohn, S., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2016). How do positive psychology interventions work? A short-term placebo-controlled humor-based study on the role of the time focus. Personality and Individual Differences96, 1-6.

3. Crawford, S. A., & Caltabiano, N. J. (2011). Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour. The Journal of Positive Psychology6(3), 237-252.

4. Crawford, S. A., & Caltabiano, N. J. (2011). Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour. The Journal of Positive Psychology6(3), 237-252.

5. Bennett, M. P., & Lengacher, C. (2009). Humor and laughter may influence health IV. humor and immune function. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine6.

6. Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2006). Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. The journal of positive psychology1(1), 17-26.

About the Author

Susan Mangan

Susan Mangan

Dr. Susan Mangan is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Thrive Center. As a Positive Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Mangan is interested in how we, as individuals and as a society, can lead happier, more fulfilling lives. As a scholar more broadly, her research focuses on positive psychology interventions, well-being, and emerging adulthood. She also has a strong background in evaluation, statistics, and community program development.

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