The Good Guffaw

Laughter may help make you happier and healthier, but not everybody benefits from humor equally. Here's how to harness laughter's powers.

While the humor-is-healthy viewpoint has finally gained scientific respectability, now humor's therapeutic limits become defined and its weaknesses understood. That may sound like a glum take on a cheerful subject, but it's not. For the better we understand when laughter is useful, the more effectively we can deploy it—something we can all be happy about.

Laughter is such an intrinsic part of our lives that we sometimes forget how very odd it is. Despite the development of newfangled imaging machines like MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists still have little idea what's happening in our brain when we laugh. Certainly the brain stem plays a role. People who've suffered strokes in this primitive brain region have been known to have prolonged bouts of pathological laughter. And some anencephalic infants—babies born missing their higher brain circuitry—will, when tickled, make faces that appear to be smiles or laughs, again implicating the primitive brain.

But laughing in response to something funny also calls on more sophisticated brain functions. One brain study in humor research looked at the electrical activity that occurs as we chuckle, giggle, or guffaw. About four-tenths of a second after we hear the punch line of a joke—but before we laugh—a wave of electricity sweeps through the cortex, reports Peter Derks, professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary.

What Derks finds most significant about this wave is that it carpets our entire cerebral cortex, rather than just one region. So all or most of our higher brain may play a role in laughter, Derks suggests, perhaps with the left hemisphere working on the joke's verbal content while the analytic right hemisphere attempts to figure out the incongruity that lies at the heart of much humor.

In the Mood

That laughter is a full-cortex experience is only fitting considering the wide-ranging effects it has on us psychologically and physiologically. Perhaps the most obvious effect of laughter is on our mood. After all, with even the most intellectual brands of humor, laughter is ultimately an expression of emotion—joy, surprise, nervousness, amusement. More than a decade of research has begun unraveling the details of the laughter-mood connection:

  • Stressed-out folks with a strong sense of humor become less depressed and anxious than those whose sense of humor is less well developed, according to a study by psychologists Herbert Lefcourt, of the University of Waterloo, and Rod Martin, Ph.D., now at the University of Western Ontario.
  • Researchers at West Chester University in Pennsylvania found that students who used humor as a coping mechanism were more likely to be in a positive mood.
  • In a study of depressed and suicidal senior citizens, the patients who recovered were the ones who demonstrated a sense of humor, reports psychiatrist Joseph Richman, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, New York.

All of this makes sense in light of laughter's numerous physiological effects. "After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state," explains John Morreall, president of HUMORWORKS Seminars in Tampa, Florida. "Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed. Laughter also indirectly stimulates endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers."

In addition to its biological effects, laughter may also improve our mood through social means. Telling a joke, particularly one that illuminates a shared experience or problem, increases our sense of "belonging and social cohesion," says Richman. He believes that by psychologically connecting us to others, laughter counteracts "feelings of alienation, a major factor in depression and suicide."

Some of laughter's other psychological effects are less obvious. For one thing, says Morreall, it helps us think more creatively. "Humor loosens up the mental gears. It encourages out-of-the-ordinary ways of looking at things."

Humor guru William Fry, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University, takes this idea one step further. "Creativity and humor are identical," he contends. "They both involve bringing together two items which do not have an obvious connection, and creating a relationship."

Finally, humor helps us contend with the unthinkable—our mortality. Lefcourt recently found that people's willingness to sign the organ donor consent on their driver's license rises with their tendency to laugh. "Very few people are ready to think, even for a moment, about death," he says. "But those who have a sense of humor are more able to cope with the idea."

A Healthy Sense of Humor

The idea that laughter promotes good health first received widespread attention through Norman Cousins's 1979 best-seller, Anatomy of an Illness. But centuries earlier, astute observers had ascribed physical benefits to humor. Thomas Sydenham, a seventeenth-century British physician, once observed: "The arrival of a good clown into a village does more for its health than 20 asses laden with drugs."

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