Lighten your load with laughter
Picture this: you’re with a group of people, something funny happens, and laughter erupts. You may have missed the catalyst, and that probably no longer matters. What does matter is that you’re having a shared experience of spontaneous laughter and joy. And you feel good!
We could dismiss this as a cool experience or a one-off. However, there’s a lot more going on in these moments, and what’s going on could be good for us! Let’s consider the transformational potential of humour, including what we know (the science), what we suspect (anecdotes and theories), and how to cultivate it.
Generally regarded as a positive attribute, there’s general support for the notion that developing a healthy sense of humour is possible, and additive, in your life.
Laughter is a physical (and thus visible) expression of a sense of humour—an involuntary physical behaviour, usually including both movement and sound, in response to some inner or outer stimulus. Laughter can be defensive, or connective; the ability to distinguish the difference is part of a developed sense of humour.
There are countless books written on humour and laughter (my bookshelves reflect this). And they all agree on two things: researching laughter can be disappointingly humourless, and we still don’t have reliable research to support many of the claims! There is, however, substantial evidence of the direct effect of laughter, which is a good start.
We often feel different, and usually better, when laughing. This is in part because real physical changes are occurring; laughing has been shown to
We literally feel better! And this can lead to longer lasting and often subtler benefits such as
The challenge is to determine if these laughter-generated changes directly affect our physical and mental health in more substantial and enduring ways. In the meantime, it’s apparent that our outlook, and our relationships, can be improved by a good sense of humour.
It’s been shown that when we’re laughing with others, this shared experience enables us to feel empathy with each other; we tend to feel closer, warmer, and more connected. And for folks who’ve been experiencing depression or anxiety, laughter is an excellent addition to their mental health prescription: it can shift activity in the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, potentially supporting mood regulation and activating pleasure centres.
Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Mark Etkin observes that “the positive impacts of laughter on brain neurochemistry is well known these days.” However, he adds that “too many people confuse seriousness with professionalism and put a lid on their sense of humour.”
Drawing on his psychoanalytic training, Etkin suggests that “higher-level defence mechanisms, humour for example, serve to reduce anxiety in a given situation … acknowledging, shifting, and transforming it in a way that brings pleasure and comfort to those present.”
A sense of humour is unique to each individual; it’s a reflection of who we are, how we view the world, how social we are, and how much we want to connect. There can be areas of overlap in our humour, and this is often the sweet spot where we feel connected with each other.
The experience of humour can range from an inner giggle to a back-slapping guffaw to outlandish pranks. If we’re socially adept, we can communicate our humour through expressions, sounds (including laughter), and other behaviours. If we’re shy or introverted, our sense of humour may be intact but imperceptible to, or misunderstood by, others.
Laughter most often occurs in the company of others—it’s rarely a solo activity! This is evident in a movie theatre screening a comedic film. Laughter can ripple through the crowd, and that sound of laughter tends to give us permission to laugh too.
In these moments we can achieve the “humour trifecta” when (1) the physiological impacts of laughter commence, (2) our emotional/psychological state shifts and our mood lifts, and (3) our social experience shifts as we experience connection in shared humour with others.
These are the moments when humour’s transformational potential is realized—in a flash, our bodies, minds, and hearts shift as we let go and open up.
I have witnessed this engagement myself when leading personal growth workshops. For example, someone struggling with shame around an obsessive behaviour was helped to reframe the behaviour as their favourite hobby! Suddenly the whole thing was funny, they embraced their “superpower,” and we were all laughing. Our human potential is indeed awesome.
A common barrier to laughter is caution. In order to access our funny bone, we need to decide it’s okay to let go, take a risk, be spontaneous. It can be a leap of faith; however, the potential reward is a sense of freedom, joy, and connection.