Amusement and pleasant surprises – and the laughter they can provoke – add texture to the fabric of everyday life.
Those giggles and laughs can seem like a silly throw away. But laughing in response to funny events actually takes a lot of work, as it activates many areas of the brain: areas that control motor, emotional, cognitive, and social processing.
As I discovered while writing An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor, researchers now value the ability of laughter to improve physical and mental wellbeing.
The physical power of laughter
People start laughing in infancy when it helps build muscle and upper body strength. Laughing is not just breathing. It is based on complex combinations of facial muscles that often involve movements of the eyes, head, and shoulders.
Laughing – doing it or watching it – activates several regions of the brain: the motor cortex that controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which will help you understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning on all of these circuits strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain to coordinate its activity.
By activating the neural pathways of emotions such as joy and joy, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense. For example, laughter can help control levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, much like antidepressants. By minimizing your brain’s responses to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones, such as cortisol, that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems over time. Laughter is like an antidote to stress, weakening these systems and making them more susceptible to disease.
The cognitive power of laughter
A good sense of humor and the laughter that follows depend on adequate levels of social intelligence and working memory resources.
Laughter, like humor, usually triggers recognition of the incongruences or absurdities of a situation. You have to solve the surprising behavior or event surprisingly – otherwise you won’t laugh; Instead, you might just be confused. Inferring other people’s intentions and taking their perspective can increase the intensity of laughter and amusement you feel.
In order to “understand” a joke or a humorous situation, you need to be able to see the brighter side of things. You have to believe that there are other options besides the wording – remember to let yourself be amused by comics with talking animals like those found in “The Far Side”.
The social power of laughter
Many cognitive and social skills work together to monitor when and why laughter occurs during conversation. You don’t even have to hear a laugh to be able to laugh. Deaf signers interrupt their signed sentences with laughter, much like emoticons in written text.
Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nilsen points out that giggles and belly laughs rarely occur alone, which supports their strong social role. Infants’ laughter begins early in life and is an outward sign of joy that helps strengthen bond with caregivers.
Later, it is an outward sign of appreciating the situation. For example, speakers and comedians try to laugh so that the audience feels psychologically closer and intimacy develops.
By laughing a little every day, you can improve social skills that you may not take for granted. When you laugh in response to humor, you share your feelings with others and learn from the risks that your response will be accepted / shared / enjoyed and not disapproved / ignored / not liked by others.
In studies, psychologists have found that men with Type A personality traits, including competitiveness and time constraints, tend to laugh more, while women with these traits tend to laugh less. Both sexes laugh more with others than alone.
Positive psychology researchers study how people can lead meaningful lives and thrive. Laughter creates positive emotions that lead to this type of bloom. These feelings – such as amusement, happiness, joy and joy – strengthen resilience and encourage creative thinking. They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction. The researchers find that these positive emotions experienced with humor and laughter correlate with appreciation for life and help older adults make good judgments about the difficulties they have faced throughout their lives.
Laughing in response to amusement is a healthy coping mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself or the situation less seriously and you may feel empowered to solve problems. For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of laughter of 41 people over two weeks along with their ratings of physical and mental stress. They found that the more laughter is experienced, the lower the reported stress. It didn’t matter whether the laughing fits were strong, moderate, or weak.
You might want to take advantage of some of these benefits for yourself – can you make the laugh work for you?
A growing number of therapists are advocating the use of humor and laughter to help clients build trust and improve the work environment. A review of five different studies found that feel-good measures increased after laughter interventions. Sometimes referred to as homeplay rather than homework, these interventions take the form of daily humor activities – surround yourself with funny people, watch a comedy that makes you laugh, or write down three funny things that happened today.
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You can also practice laughing on your own. Purposely take a perspective that appreciates the fun side of events. Laughter yoga is a technique that uses breathing muscles to achieve the positive physical responses of natural laughter with forced laughter (ha ha hee hee ho ho).
Researchers today certainly do not laugh at their worth, but much of the research on the impact of laughter on mental and physical health is based on self-reporting. More psychological experimentation with laughter, or the contexts in which it occurs, will likely reinforce the importance of laughter throughout your day, and perhaps even suggest more ways to intentionally reap its benefits.
Janet M. Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Grinnell College
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.