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The Benefits of Humor

Why laughter really is good medicine

Key points

  • Humor is one of the most adaptive defense mechanisms.
  • Laughter boosts feel-good chemistry of serotonin and dopamine.
  • Humor has a positive effect on mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
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Humor has been a dynamic subject long studied and explored in all branches psychology.

For example, developmental psychologists study how humor and laughter develop throughout our lifespan. Humor helps babies, children, teens and adults negotiate developmental milestones.

Cognitive psychologists study how humor influences our perception, thoughts, understanding and appreciation - and how it can shape our own belief systems.

Social psychology researchers look at how humor creates bonds among groups and communities. How it can persuade, influence and create cohesion or conformity.

Personality researchers trace how humor shapes our personality as well as traits and characteristics and the kind of dispositions we have.

Biological psychology studies the neurobiology and brain functioning regions of laughter and humor - which illustrates just how our figurative funny-bone is literally a brain system of neural responses.

And then there is psychoanalysis, often called the first school of psychology, which has studied humor, laughter and its value, for over one hundred years.

Humor as Defense

According to Freud, humor is one the highest levels of adaptive defense mechanisms, which allows us to maintain a healthy perspective in the face of misfortune and adversity. Many other psychology theorists agree, and believe humor is a most dynamic way to deal with life struggles, trauma and everyday challenges.

More specifically, the defense of humor serves as a form of cognitive reappraisal of a situation. The slant of finding-the-funny in a challenging situation makes it less threatening and more manageable. Humor replaces the feeling of worry or terror one might experience, creating a flexibility to problem solve and a venting of negative feelings through laughter.

Humor can serve as a counterphobic attitude in response to trauma. Instead of falling apart or collapsing in the face of challenge, humor comedically seeks out and dissects the anxiety so it no longer has the power to paralyze. Instead, this humorous approach preserves a sense of mastery, hope, and integrity - thereby enabling children and adults to survive and thrive through difficult moments.

Laughter, when it's a shared experience, deepens empathy. It generates warm feelings, attachment and friendliness. And if you live with a mental illness like depression or anxiety, laughter has been shown to shift serotonin and dopamine, providing feel good benefits with a simple chuckle.

Physical Benefits of Humor

Science is filled with studies touting the positive physical benefits of humor. Laughter reduces serum levels of stress hormones. It significantly boosts our immune system. It also regulates blood pressure, heart rate, improves memory, focus, attention and concentration. Humor and laughter also have analgesic properties.... meaning that finding-the-funny activates the release of endorphins which reduce physical aches and pains and muscular tension. Studies have also shown the powerful effect humor has on reducing postoperative pain and chronic pain.

Prescribing Laughter

As someone who's lived with chronic depression since my teens. I lean on laughter. It's a constant in my life. Like air. I need it everyday.

I use the adaptive defense of humor when I can, which certainly makes the fundamental challenges of my life a bit easier to bear. When I can't, I know that my loved ones can find a way to make me laugh. And I surround myself with clever, funny friends. Or when those options aren't possible, I seek out comedians.

When the ridiculous collides with the absurd for amusement, that's my jam. Humor is ever-present in my to-watch lists on my DVR. My Netflix, Hulu, and Prime. And whenever I have the opportunity to see a stand-up comedian in person, my tickets are purchased. Though watching or reading humorous things is also great, the belly-laugh-to-time-frequency-ratio is exponentially more when you watch stand-up comedians skillfully work their craft.

I often prescribe laughter to my patients as well. The physical, mental and spiritual benefits are massive. Psychotherapy treatment with the children and adults I work with may be tailored to raise low-level defensive strategies to higher ones like humor. Or I might recommend weaving more funny into one's daily life via books, movies, art, media and life experiences.

Of course, there's a time and a place to laugh and be funny. And there are times that it may not suit the moment. Overall, building a strong funny-bone can help children and adults find greater wellness in life. And that's why laughter is good medicine.

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