We know laughter feels good, but did you know humour does much more than entertain us?
Research shows laughter has many long- and short-term benefits to our mental, physical and social well-being, says Scott Aylwin, Senior Director of Addiction and Mental Health with Covenant Health.
It’s healthy to laugh
It all starts with biology and physiology. Laughter activates some of the reward systems in our brains and releases feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, all while suppressing stress-related chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
So in the moment, humour makes us feel lighter and a little less stressed, but its long-term benefits can be significant. By suppressing stress hormones, laughter can prevent and mitigate some of the conditions associated with chronic stress, such as pain, diabetes, heart disease and suppressed immune response, Scott says.
“All of these are associated with high levels of stress hormones, so if you can mitigate those, you get the short-term benefit of feeling good, but in the long term the impact is higher,” says Scott.
Laughing can mitigate anxiety and depression
Along with staving off some of the physical impacts of stress, humour also helps us maintain a more positive outlook and improve our resilience when faced with challenges, including depression.
“If you’re in a cognitive loop of negative thinking and depressive thoughts, you can start to turn the loop the other way by injecting humour and levity,” Scott says. “That way it becomes a more natural response and you’re more likely to have more positive feelings and behaviours.”
Humour can also help manage a high state of anxiety, which Scott says cannot coexist alongside genuine laughter.
“When we have a good belly laugh, we feel relaxed and a little less stressed,” Scott explains. “If someone who is anxious can introduce levity into their life, that’s more than just interesting, that’s an intervention.”
People bond when they laugh together
Laughter is a social bonding agent, and this is true around the world.
“It seems we are biologically wired to laugh,” Scott says. “Every culture finds something funny, and one of the theories is that humour helps contribute to social stability and human interaction.” When we laugh together, we share a collective experience that promotes a connection with the people around us.
Sometimes we need to seek out humour
We know humour has many benefits—but how can we laugh when we’re in the throes of depression, grief or anxiety?
“Depression works against feeling positive and humorous, but humour works against depression,” Scott says. “What you have to do when you’re trying to improve your mental health is put a little effort into it.”
Scott says there is no quick fix, but it starts with conscious decisions to find those humorous outlets.
“Reach out to people who are more likely to make you laugh; watch a movie that makes you laugh, not cry. This requires a bit of conscious effort.”
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