Laughing makes us feel good, but it also has the power to transform our lives.
After 2020, we could all do with more joy in our lives. We know laughing makes us feel good but are we underestimating the power that humour has to transform our lives by improving our work, health and relationships?
Laughter as a physical process triggers endorphins, your happy hormones, and suppresses cortisol, the stress hormone. It releases oxytocin, which makes us more trusting, and dopamine, which aids memory and information processing. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation.
A 15-year follow-up study of 53,556 participants by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked at the associations between sense of humour and survival in relation to specific diseases. They found that those with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those who scored lower. Women who scored high on the use of humour had a 48 per cent lower risk of death from all causes, a 73 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease, and an 83 per cent lower risk of death from infection. Men had a 74 per cent lower risk of death from infection.
As well as amazing physical effects, laughter has great emotional benefits. Studies have shown cortisol is linked to anxiety and increased risk of depression, so if we can use humour to suppress cortisol it makes us more emotionally resilient in difficult times.
“If you are threatened or stressed and you can decrease that using humour, you reduce the amount of the stress-hormone cortisol being released. If it’s released day after day because you are in a stressful environment, it wears down the immune system so when a microbe comes in, you can’t fight it off,” explains Janet M. Gibson, Professor of Psychology at Grinnell College, Iowa, and author of An Introduction to the Psychology of Humour.
“It also wears down your heart muscles. Humour doesn’t get rid of stress; it softens things. That goes a long way to strengthening health: you have lower blood pressure, you feel calmer, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard as it did and you get better oxygen to your brain.”
IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Different people find different things funny. Some prefer one-liners, others prefer slapstick, storytelling or physical humour, such as face pulling.
These preferences may change throughout our lifetimes. Some people laugh more often and more freely than others, dependent on factors such as personality type – whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. “Everyone differs in their experience. Not everyone is an extrovert. It takes some risk to laugh out loud. What if you laughed out loud and you’re not supposed to? That could be embarrassing. People who are shy are not going to laugh freely. They would need a very strong, clear stimulus to know it’s OK to laugh,” says Gibson.
Detecting and understanding humour takes cognitive competence and social intelligence. It activates multiple regions of the brain, strengthening neural connections. Humour usually results from surprise and misdirection coming from the incongruity between what we expect and what happens. “We expect things to happen a certain way. Humans are very good at predicting what comes next and when that prediction is violated, you can get two responses: surprise and puzzlement, or surprise and amusement,” says Gibson. “It goes against expectations, when you’ve solved a problem, by understanding a joke and that creates pleasure.”
The results of various studies show that a decline in cognitive abilities associated with ageing can decrease understanding of humour and the ability to produce it, yet when a joke is understood by older adults they typically show greater appreciation of the joke than younger adults.
Due to the cognitive demands that humour requires, using it more often may help delay the cognitive decline associated with ageing. Also, if your sense of humour changes or diminishes, it could be a sign of disease, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“If you catch yourself not getting something, or if you lose your sense of humour, it can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. You need those areas of the brain working. Saying things such as ‘I used to love puns, but now I don’t’ can be a sign that something has changed,” says Gibson.
At the heart of humour is usually truth: observations about everyday life with which people can empathise. For example, a comedian talking about tripping over all his wife’s shoes that litter the hallway. Next time you watch your favourite comedian, notice how they refer to things in their personal life, about their relationships, work, their feelings – what makes them happy, sad or irritated that you find funny because you can empathise.
Laughter releases oxytocin, which makes us more trusting. Studies have shown this helps facilitate the development of social bonds by making a person more willing to disclose personal information. This quickens the path to trust in new relationships and makes us feel more satisfied in our relationships over time.
In a 2015 study undertaken at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, participants watched either a funny
92% of couples say humour contributes positively to married life.