November 21, 2022 – Among the countless recipes for health, perhaps none is more important than laughter. In fact, laughter ranks pretty high up in the medical toolbox research suggesting that it produces a multitude of benefits ranging from stress relief and improved breathing to an additional boost to the body’s immune system and increased pain tolerance.
But perhaps one of the most important benefits of laughter is its positive impact on mental health and the ability to cope with life’s multitude of challenges, especially as we age. The challenge is to keep the humor muscle pumped and primed.
“Research shows that around the age of 23, our tendency to laugh diminishes and we have more responsibilities — college degrees, professional jobs, promotions, adjustable-rate mortgages 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 get that laugh back until we’re in our 70s.”
But 50 odd years seems like an awfully long time to reclaim one of life’s most precious gifts, which is why, as with all muscle, it’s a “use it or lose it” principle.
“Like all other mindfulness and positive psychology techniques, it takes practice, intent, 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 board-certified humor expert.
“The premise is really that we can view our lives as drama or comedy at any point in time. The more we dive into humor and really start learning how to use and experience humor—not by accident, but by choice—we begin to crank the pump of positivity in our lives,” he says.
Not all laughs are the same
The first step to harnessing the power of laughter is to understand the language of laughter.
Laughter can be self-induced at will without any humorous or funny prompt.
Laughter can be stimulated by physical contact (e.g. tickling) or induced by medication (e.g. nitrous oxide or nitrous oxide during dental procedures).
Laughter can also be caused by changes in the body’s nervous system or by mental illness. This form of laughter is called pathological Laugh.
But in terms of health and well-being, the most important type of laughter is the one most familiar to people, which according to a Review 2021, is genuine or spontaneous laughter. This is the type of laughter that is triggered by an external stimulus like a funny joke or elicited by positive emotions.
It can also be activated through humor exercises, which is the ideal place for therapeutic humorists like DeSalle and her practice partner Lodge McCammon, PhD, a board-certified humor expert, mental health counselor, musician, and motivational speaker. Osincup also uses humor exercises in his workshops.
Retraining the humor muscle
Before we unleash an eye roll, let’s be clear: the goal of these exercises isn’t to create a new generation of comedians or performers, or to force anyone to “cheer up.”
Rather, in their work with clients, DeSalle and McCammon use absurdity training, an approach that invites participants to “absurdize” their discomfort so that they can reframe uncomfortable experiences and, in turn, give themselves a momentary break from negative emotions and minor annoyances or challenges.
Recently, the team ran a month-long exercise series they called “Humor Games” on a community Facebook page. Over 4 weeks, participants were offered a prompt focused on humor and its benefits, and then provided 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 dormant humor muscle. While the general answer might be the solutionshould the practice answer be a caricature of reality and something unexpectedly absurd, like:
Don’t be part of the problem. Be a common troublemaker.
McCammon says participants were invited each day to post their answers and comments to others, with each week culminating in a Friday event (e.g., funniest post) that was shared on their own pages and with the entire group. Participants were also trained to create memes from the prompts.
“They became more challenging over time and in the last two weeks have been considered therapeutic exercise,” says McCammon. “Rather than asking players to include something absurd, we asked them to include something that bothers them or that they are struggling with in life and that is difficult.”
Participants were then asked to reframe what was challenging or uncomfortable into something more humorous. The humorists used memes especially for these requests. 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 solution – that’s not only uncomfortable, but also funny because [blank]’ explains DeSalle.
“You can learn to retrain — refocus — your mind instead of sitting around in discomfort and pain, which is what we tend to do as humans,” she says.