Nov. 21, 2022 -- Among the myriad of prescriptions for health, perhaps none is more important than laughter. In fact, laughter ranks fairly high in the medicine toolbox, with research suggesting that it induces a wide variety of benefits that range from stress reduction and improved breathing to providing an extra boost to the body’s immune system and increasing pain tolerance.
But one of the most important benefits of laughing may be its positive effects on mental health and the ability to cope with the multitude of life’s curveballs, especially as we grow older. The challenge is keeping the humor muscle pumped and primed.
“Research shows that at about the age of 23, our propensity to laugh begins to evaporate, we have more responsibilities – graduating college, professional jobs, promotions, variable interest rate mortgage loans, and stuff like that,” says Paul Osincup, a humor strategist and past-president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. “We really don’t gain those laughs back until we are in our 70s."
But 50 some-odd years seems like an awfully long time to reclaim one of life’s most precious gifts, which is why like all muscles, the "use it or lose it" principle applies.
“Like all other mindfulness and positive psychology techniques, it requires practice, intention, and vulnerability,” says Mallori DeSalle, director of SBIRT Implementation and Motivational Interviewing Training at Indiana University in Bloomington and a licensed mental health specialist and certified humor professional.
“The premise really is that at any point, we can be viewing our lives as a drama or a comedy. The more that we immerse ourselves in humor and really start learning how to use and experience humor – not by chance but by choice– we start priming the pump for positivity in our lives,” he says.
Not All Laughs Are Equal
The first step to harnessing the power of laughter is to understand the language of laughter.
Laughter can be self-induced at will without a humorous or funny prompt.
Laughter can be stimulated by physical contact (e.g., tickling), or induced by drugs (e.g., laughing gas or nitrous oxide during dental procedures).
Laughter can also be caused by alterations in the body’s nervous system or due to mental health conditions. This form of laughter is called pathological laughter.
But as far as health and well-being go, the most important type of laughter is the one that people are most familiar with, which, according to a 2021 review, is genuine or spontaneous laughter. This is the type of laughter that is triggered by an outside stimulus such as a funny joke or brought about through positive emotions.
It can also be activated by humor exercises, which is the sweet spot for therapeutic humorists like DeSalle and her practice partner Lodge McCammon, PhD, educator, therapeutic humorist, and musician. Osincup also uses humor exercises in his workshops.
Retraining the Humor Muscle
Before letting out an eye roll, let’s be clear: The goal of these exercises is not to create a new generation of comedians or performers or compel someone to "cheer up."
Rather, DeSalle and McCammon use absurdity training in their work with clients, an approach that invites participants to "absurdify" their discomfort so that they can reframe unpleasant experiences and in turn, gain a brief respite from negative emotions and small annoyances or challenges.
Recently, the team conducted a monthlong practice series on a community Facebook page that they called the Humor Games. Over 4 weeks, participants were offered a prompt that focused on humor and its benefits, and then given a direction on that prompt. For example:
Fill in the blank: Don’t be part of the problem. Be [fill in the blank].
DeSalle explains that an exercise like this is a warm-up that helps people slowly awaken an otherwise resting humor muscle. While the common response might be the solution, the exercise response should be a caricature of reality and something unexpectedly absurd, like:
Don’t be part of the problem. Be an ordinary troublemaker.
McCammon says that throughout each day, participants were invited to post their responses and comments on others, with each week culminating in a Friday event (e.g., funniest post) that would be shared on their own pages and with the overall group. The participants were also coached on how to create memes from the prompts.
“Over time, they got more and more challenging and, over the last 2 weeks, were considered therapeutic exercises,” says McCammon. “Instead of asking players to plug in something absurd, we asked them to plug in something that was bothering them or something that they were dealing with in life that is difficult.”
Afterward, participants were asked to reframe the thing that was challenging or unpleasant into something more humorous. For these prompts especially, the humorists used memes. For example:
Not to brag or anything, but I can [scratch a new car] better than anyone you’ve ever met.
"Ultimately, we’re helping to find a faster fix – not only is this unpleasant but it’s also funny because [blank]," explains DeSalle.
“They can learn how to retrain their thoughts – to reframe – instead of sitting in discomfort and the pain, which is what we tend to do as humans,” she says.