Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue


9 Ways Humor Heals

posted by Beyond Blue

laughing.jpg

Of all my tools to combat depression and negativity, humor is by far the most fun. And just like mastering the craft of writing, I’m finding that the longer I practice laughing at life–and especially it’s frustrations–the better I become at it, and the more situations and conversations and complications I can place into that category named “silly.”

G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” And Proverbs 17:22 says that “a happy heart is good medicine.” I’d add that human beings can heal (at least partially!) from a host of different illnesses if they learn how to laugh. Here are just a few ways our bodies, minds, and spirits begin to mend with a dose of humor.

1.Humor combats fear.

I know this first hand, having sat in a community room of a psych ward watching a video of a comedian poke fun at depression. Like everyone else occupying a chair in that room, I was scared to death. Of many things … That I would never smile again. Or love again. Or even WANT to love again. I was fearful of life, and everything it involved.

That panic didn’t instantly transform into a hearty chuckle once the psych nurse popped in the funny video. But the climate of the room was noticeably different. Patients began to open up more, to share some of the details they had left out in the prior group therapy session.

Humor disengages fear because it changes your perspective: of the past and of the present. The traumatic childhood episode loses its tight grip on your heart if you can place it into the “ridiculous” category of other stories from the past. With a playful perspective, you can remove yourself from the marital problem that has you debilitated with anxiety. Laughter forces a few steps–some much-needed distance– between a situation and our reaction. We all would do well to follow the advice of Leo Buscaglia: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. And swing!”

2. Humor comforts.

Charlie Chaplain once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” I suppose that’s why some of the funniest people out there–Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Art Buchwald–have journeyed through periods of torment.

There is an unspoken message hidden within a chuckle–even the slightest cackle– that says this: “I promise, you’ll get through this.” Just like the comforting hug of your mom when you were three. In fact, New York City’s Big Apple Circus has used humor to console sick children since 1986, when they started sending teams of clowns into hospital rooms with “rubber chicken soup” and other fun surprises. “Its for the children, yes,” explains Jane Englebardt, deputy director of the circus, in an “American Fitness” article. “But it’s also for the parents who, when they hear their children laugh for the first time in days or weeks, know everything’s going to be O.K.”

3. Humor relaxes.

Like any exercise, laughing relaxes you, and works against chronic stress that most Americans wear on the shoulder. Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., a heart surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, explains why this is so in a 2005 “Reader’s Digest” article:

When you push any engine, including your body, to its maximum, every once in a while it slips a gear. The ways the body manifests that are: irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and increased sensitivity to pain. When people use humor, the autonomic nervous system just tones down a bit to take it off high gear, and that allows the heart to relax.

4. Humor reduces pain.

Apparently the psych nurses at Laurel Regional Hospital weren’t the only ones gathering patients around the TV to watch funny flicks or videos. Dr. Elias Shaya, chief of psychiatry at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore also tries to instill the importance of laughter in his patients. Says Dr. Shaya: “I advocate finding ways to laugh by watching comedy or engaging in looking up jokes and sharing them.”

“Humor rooms,” which encourage people to use humor in their recovery from any kind of illness, are now available in some hospitals. And science backs these efforts. In a study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, humor very definitely seemed to diminish pain. Says Dave Traynor, M.Ed, director of health education at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield Center, Connecticut in “American Fitness”: “After surgery, patients were told one-liners prior to administration of potentially painful medication. The patients exposed to humor perceived less pun as compared to patients who didn’t receive humor stimuli.”

5. Humor boosts the immune system.

Whenever I prick myself accidentally, I tell a joke, and my finger doesn’t bleed! Well, not exactly. But if you are laid up in bed with a terrible strain of the flu that your four-year-old brought home from her play date yesterday, try to find an itsy-bitsy thread of humor in your situation, and you’ll be back to work in no time. Or, better yet, dwell in the misery and stay away from the cubicle longer.

In 2006 researchers led by Lee Berk and Stanley A. Tan at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Califormia, found that two hormones–beta-endorphins (which alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (HGH, which helps with immunity) increased by 27 and 87 percent respectively when volunteers anticipated watching a humorous video. Simply anticipating laughter boosted health-protecting hormones and chemicals.

In his “American Fitness” article, Dave Traynor explains a separate study at Arkansas Tech University, in which concentrations of immunoglobulin A were increased after 21 fifth graders participated in a humor program. (I’m nervous to hear about the details of that fifth-grade humor program, because my kids roar whenever you throw out a bathroom term.) Laughter was once again found to increase the ability to fight viruses and foreign cells.

6. Humor reduces stress.

The same research team at Loma Linda, California, conducted a similar study recently to see if the anticipation of laughter that was shown to boost immune systems could also reduce the levels of three stress hormones: cortisol (“the stress hormone”), epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopac, a dopamine catabolite (brain chemical which helps produce epinephrine).

They studied 16 fasting males, who were assigned to either the control group or the experiment group (those anticipating a humorous event). Blood levels showed that the stress hormones were reduced 39, 70, and 38 percent respectively. Therefore, researchers suggest that anticipating a positive event can reduce detrimental stress hormones.

7. Humor spreads happiness.

I remember playing the game of “Ha” as a young girl at my third-grade slumber party. I would lay my head of my friend’s tummy, and she would lay her head on another friend’s tummy, and so on. The first person would start the chain of laughs with a simple, “Ha!” The second person, “Ha Ha!” The third, “Ha Ha Ha,” at which point everyone would break into hysterics. About absolutely nothing. The way a person’s abdomen tightens and moves when she says “ha” makes you want to giggle.

My point: laughter is contagious. That’s why there are 5,000 laughter clubs around the world–where people laugh for no reason at all. Say what? According to Dr. Shaya of Good Samaritan Hospital, “These clubs have exercises that teach how to move your face, how to laugh more intensely to involve the shoulders, then the belly.” Laughing yoga classes are also popular today.

8. Humor cultivates optimism.

Humor is like gratitude in that it nurtures optimism, and Dan Baker writes this in “What Happy People Know”:

[Appreciation] is the first and most fundamental happiness tool. … Research now shows it is physiologically impossible to be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. Thus, appreciation is the antidote to fear.

So if humor can change a perspective on a painful memory of the past or a gnawing issue of the present into opportunities to laugh at the inherent craziness of life at times, then a person can better facilitate his own healing.

9. Humor helps communication.

This is good marriage advice for anyone. But especially for the person prone to anxiety and depression. Most of Eric’s and my fights end with one of us making a sarcastic remark that is met with a snicker, and then a yuk, and then a roar. Voila! The quarrel is magically resolved! Sort of.

Humor is a way to articulate those truths that are so difficult to express otherwise. It’s handy language for someone like myself that doesn’t like to use big words, who is still fretting about her low verbal SAT scores because the college administrators didn’t think they were funny. If only they had read this article!



  • Jeramy Sossaman

    good stuff…

  • zana

    It worked for me! I was starting to slide–more like careen downhill when my therapist was out of town. She told me to go to utube.com and recommended Tracy Ullman, Ellen Degeneres. Just try one because it will lead you to a whole lotta other funny links. I resisted at first, didn’t think such a simple answer could ease my frame of mind. I was not in a mood to be happy. Before long I was laughing along and was able to get myself out of the funk, “Life sucks and then you die” mindframe. So, every once in awhile I watch something again. Also, if I can find a tv show on reruns, or a current one that prods a smile out of my belly. (Can’t believe I’m advocating what I once called Brain Rot!). I’ll choose that over the news or some drama-especially the ones where someone with a mental illness is portrayed as the antagonist. As far as exercise, it sure beats crunches!

  • valerie

    Thanks for the advice, Therese! I think I consciously need to remember to laugh more often–there are just so many benefits! This is one thing I can put on my list of “things to do” that will be enjoyable and well worth it.Thanks! Valerie

  • OneidaChippewa

    This is absolutely one of the best articles I have seen regarding the healthy effects of humor. We all need to learn to laugh more and how sad it is to think that people actually need to be taught HOW to laugh.
    Children know this instinctively………..nothing warms my heart more than to hear the deep belly laugh of a baby. One of my fondest memories is of the song “I Love To Laugh” sung by Ed Wynn I believe in the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang”. I went around singing that silly thing for the longest kind of time and every now and then it comes to mind just out of the blue. Another favorite of mine is the movie “Patch Adams”. I belong to a group called “The Fellowship of Merry Christians” and it is absolutely one of the most uplifting things I have ever been a part of. There have been a lot of things that have happened in my life that has caused my spirits to hit BELOW rock bottom. Without humor I would have been buried down there long ago! I have a t-shirt that is one of my favorites……..written on it’s front is this message, “Take a giggle break.” That’s one of the
    mottos I try to live by each day.

  • Linda Bemis

    My husband went to a night club to drink with a friend of mine and he
    forgot his wallet. That’s funny. He wore the wrong pair of pants.
    When my husband told me to do something in front of a friend, I stated
    You don’t want to be lazy like David do you? he laughed.
    Even though we are divorced, I see him often as a friend. We started
    as friends and end up that way. It does last longer when there is a need.
    See the funny side of your self too. My four kids laughed at me. It
    makes you feel better. Giggle when it is humorous too.

  • Lynne

    Sing that song…”Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and make up your own words. I’m a little twisted so I can find humour in the most bizarre situations. The more outrageous…the better. BBC is a good start. I just love the dry English wit!

  • chato

    AWESOME!
    Here is my link over 100 cartoons I’ve done for Mental Health Humor.
    ( http://mentalhealthhumor.today.com/site-map )

  • Typo Spotter

    “The patients exposed to humor perceived less pun as compared to patients who didn’t receive humor stimuli.”
    That’s funny in and of itself – what about patients exposed to more sophisticated forms of humor than the pun? :^)

  • Jill

    That was great, thanks :)

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  • http://www.islandlili.com Lili Dauphin

    First of all, thanks for a great post. It’s rather coincidental that I shall come upon your post. Yesterday, I posted a blog entitled:” We must laugh everyday.” I agree with everything in this article. Without laughter, we would all be walking around like zombies, ready to give up hope. I can honestly testify that laughter had kept me alive in spite of other’s dissent. We all need to laugh a little bit more. In time, I believe we’ll laugh more and we’ll live longer as a result. So humans! Let’s do it together today. Wake up with a smile and laughter will follow.

  • Suzy

    I too believe that laughter is the best medicine. I have chronic pain and take medication for this. But when me and my son get to laughing I forget all my pain and savor the moment. Needless to say, we laugh a lot.

  • http://www.whattoeatwhilepregnant.com/ Ana

    Often in life we do not laugh enough. However, laughter does wonders for the mind body and soul. In my line of work, I deal with women who are often very sad about the problems trying to get pregnant. I consistently try to remind them that laughter and good times will get them pregnant faster and will be more fun in the process.

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  • SandyYour Name

    I am in need of a good laugh, or a few more than that, actually. Would appreciate it if anyone could recommend movies or books.
    sandyrubicz@gmail.com
    Not as attractive, perhaps, but the value of a good cry is worth its weight in gold. Similarly releases endorphins, and useful when things are piling up.
    Anyone agree? Any suggestions for movies, music?

  • judith

    would also like to have some suggestions about sources for books, videos etc. to lift my spirits

  • nameless

    Also funny is the typo in the last line of “Method #4″ !

  • Ciara

    First of all I’m a big believer in humor changing moods. My favorite humor book is Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid by the shut up sisters. Second of all I’m the writer of http://www.support4bipolarteens.blogspot.com. I was wondering if you could do a blog about a contest CABF (Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation)is in. If they win they get $250,000 in grant money to help kids with bipolar disorder and depression. The contest is based on how many votes they get so people have to vote everyday for them to win. For all the information on it go to http://www.bpkids.org/pepsi. It’s a really good cause that everyone with bipolar disorder should be supporting. I wrote one on mine and I’m trying to get more bloggers to post so more people will see. If you could blog about it that would helpful. It’s a great cause that deserves to win. Thanks very much!

  • http://www.healthmattersshow.com Cinda Crawford

    What you believe and how you choose to approach your life and problems with laughter, love and deeds are both critical to a person being able to achieve a good, desired outcome. Allow these goals to be non-existent or to slide… and lots of negative health consequences can come your way.
    I absolutely LOVE what you have written. Keep up the good work and let’s share some links some time. :-)
    Cinda Crawford, host of the Health Matters Show

  • momof2

    All I know is that I laugh everyday at my job….you see I work with special needs high school students…and they make me laugh….and cry…laughter is such an important thing to do…and it lets me look forward to the next day!

  • Lark

    I had a friend a long time ago, who laughed at things i was taking too seriously. I couldn’t understand why, but I do now.
    Often in the past while recollecting some very painful experiences I would laugh while talking about them to a therapist. I din’t know why but I did know it made me feel better.
    Cry if you have too, but try laughing first.

  • Heidi

    the first time I got cellulitis, I had a high fever and incredible pain throughout my whole body. I really and TRULY believed that God needed a conduit for pain to enter and leave the universe, and I was it. When the fever came down and I was able to get out of bed for the first time in five days, I drew a picture of The Pain. It was jagged and dark and spiky. Then I drew a picture of The Hair. It, too, was jagged and dark, and HUGE, and spiky.
    and then I laughed. :) and then I milked it MAJORLY, for two weeks. Doc said “Stay off your feet” and I did ;-)

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