It’s hard to find much in life that we enjoy that doesn’t result in guilt, fat, or jail. But there is at least one activity we can indulge in that is good for us in spite of the fact it feels good– laughter. Humor is increasingly regarded as having real and significant benefits for our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Lee S. Berk, an assistant research professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, in the Schools of Medicine and Public Health at Loma Linda University in California, is one of a growing number of researchers who have turned their attention to humor and the health benefits of laughter and joy. Berk’s findings concur with other studies that show direct health benefits from laughter and humor. After laughter, blood pressure levels temporarily drop, as do levels of cortisol in the blood. At the same time disease-fighting killer T cell levels increase.
Beyond the measurable physical benefits of laughter to boost immune function and moderate the stress response, humor also has benefits for the mind and spirit. We often use humor to deal with problems that seem overwhelming. It is a natural and healthy tool because humor provides symbolic control over the otherwise unendurable. That mental toehold might be a first step to overcoming a difficulty just by reframing the problem in a new and humorous way.
It is also more effective than any other experience, except tragedy, in its potential to cement and strengthen relationships. People we laugh with are people we care about.
For all the benefits to body, mind, and soul, there is also a dark side. Humor can be used to nurture, strengthen, cope, and invite others; but it can also be used to ridicule, separate, and exclude. The success of humor shouldn’t be measured by the laughter it elicits, but instead by the motive that underlies it. The kind of humor we need to practice that is healing and constructive invites rather than excludes. It nurtures rather than victimizes. It is rooted in kindness, not anger. We all participate in darker forms of humor from time to time—tossing insults at our friends or mocking authority. We just need to make sure that everyone participating is really laughing and not just smiling to mask a wound.
Here are some suggestions for enjoying the benefits of humoring yourself and others:
Practice humor. Start with you. Look in the mirror and smile for no reason. Keep it up until you either start to feel better or someone pounds on the bathroom door. Don’t stop there. There are lots of times during each day you’re funny. If you don’t think so, you aren’t paying attention. Poke fun at yourself for your mistakes or your bad hair day, but stop calling yourself names for every imperfection. Be kind in your use of humor even when it’s just you talking to yourself.
Look for humor. Tune into the incongruities of life at work and at home and when you find them, consciously choose amusement over anger. With practice, the response becomes more natural.
Share with others. Share an experience with others that invites them to laugh with you. The power of shared laughter is strong and bonding. Make sure the humor you share doesn’t come at anyone else’s expense. Ironically, people who laugh at their own mistakes gain the esteem of others while those who try to project an aura of infallibility are magnets for ridicule.
Take it home. Don’t forget to find laughter to share with your family. Funny experiences bind family members to each other like few other experiences can. Dare to use humor. Your teens may roll their eyes, but they’ll do that anyway. Deep down they’ll appreciate your attempt at lightness even if they pronounce it, “Lame.”
Take inventory. After a week of your humor regimen ask yourself how your conscious use of humor has altered experiences and relationships.