Modern life has become increasingly complicated and it’s believed that stress is the primary obstacle to laughter. Laughter is a physical expression of humor and joy that has numerous protective qualities. It’s one of the best ways to manage perceptions of stress and to develop resilience and improve psychological sturdiness as it strongly correlates with happiness.2 Happiness and humor can improve brain function—there is evidence of increased connectivity in various parts of the brain in response to laughter.3 Humor releases brain derived neurotrophic factor, which supports existing neurons and encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses.4 Given the brain's neuroplasticity, it’s to our benefit to make our lifetime experiences as positive and hilarious as possible.
The field of medicine has long recognized the importance of humor. In the 1300s, Henri de Mondeville, a professor of surgery, propagated post-operative therapy with humor.5 Norman Cousins, a journalist and a professor, also initiated this trend when he developed his own “treatment,” based on mood elevation through laughter.6 According to Cousins, ten minutes of laughter resulted in two hours of pain free sleep.
Many studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of laughter. Laughing during a humorous film elevates the pain threshold and can help break the cycle between pain, sleep loss, depression, and immunosuppression.4 Laughter lowers blood pressure, epinephrine, and glucose levels, and increases glucose tolerance. Laughter also assists in the recovery and prevention of cancer by increasing natural killer cell activity, the response of gamma interferon and T cells, and improves the defense against respiratory infections. Humor and laughter produce a discharge of endorphins with both euphoric and calming effects.7
Laughter yoga is a contemporary technique developed in India that encourages participants to mimic the act of laughing with the goal of achieving positive psychological outcomes. The results have shown significant improvements in positive emotions and reductions in the severity of symptoms of stress and anxiety as well as reduced anxiety and improved quality of sleep in patients suffering from Parkinson disease.8,9
Humorous interventions may be especially helpful with aging. Findings indicate that happier people are less likely to develop tau tangles and amyloid plaques.4 Moreover, increased use of humor in the period following the death of a spouse was found to promote greater emotional resilience.2 In particular, those using more humor were better able to keep positive emotions distinct and separate from their negative emotions, resulting in fewer depressive symptoms. Humor related benefits have also been reported by elderly residents in assisted living facilities.
As suggested by Freud, humor may be the highest of the defense processes of the psyche, which we can invoke to guard against anxiety.10,11 Throughout history, humor has been linked to tragedy in literature and theater, but it can also be a form of escape.3,7 Black humor or “Gallows” humor can qualify as support mechanisms in the presence of impossible situations or traumatic circumstances in order to relieve tension and cope with the stress.2,7 The search for a funny aspect in a difficult moment can help us endure it, and when used to help others to copy, can be altruistic.11
Dr Khajuria is Staff Psychiatrist, Men’s Forensic Outpatient Unit, Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Los Angeles, CA.
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