How Humor Impacts Mental Health

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Vanessa Lingenfelter (2021-2022), Co-Managing Editor

From ancient Greek plays and Shakespearean writings to sitcoms and modern day stand-up, comedy has been a fundamental facet of the human experience for millenia. A person’s sense of humor begins developing as early as infancy and humor in its various forms can be observed within every human culture. Laughter is a universal language that cuts across all barriers, and its powers can be used for more than just entertainment.

 

It is sometimes said that laughter is the best medicine, and although laughter hardly beats actual medicine, the saying is not without any merit. Medical research has found numerous short and long term benefits of humor, demonstrating a general connection between comedy and mental health. This link is established through two biological processes: chemical release and facial feedback.

 

“Laughter releases endorphins, dopamine, serotonin–all neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness and general states of healthier well-being,” said AP Psychology teacher Colleen Thompson. “The more you laugh, the more chemicals are released, the better you feel.”

 

In addition to the release of certain chemicals, the smiling that comes with laughter has an impact as well. Although it is impossible to simply “smile away the pain” as a solution to depression, smiling can help to induce feelings of happiness and uplift mood.

 

“Our bodies respond to muscles in our face,” said Thompson. “The more we smile, the more our brains interpret that as positive feedback, which increases the release of the chemicals above.”

 

Humor is commonly used as a coping mechanism to deal with mental health issues due to its association with positive moods. A study performed by two Stanford psychologists in 2010 found that positive humor can be effective in reducing negative emotions. The study involved showing participants negative imagery, such as photographs from car accidents, and then asking them to improvise either positive or negative jokes. Subjects who made jokes reported an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions, but those who utilized positive humor experienced the most benefit. Humor is certainly effective as a coping mechanism, but whether or not it is healthy depends on how it is used.

 

“Humor to a certain degree is healthy, but if you aren’t dealing with the actual problems and are using humor exclusively to cope it becomes problematic,” said Thompson.

 

When using humor to cope, it is important to maintain a positive mindset and avoid using humor as a substitution for therapeutic treatment. Comedy on its own is not a solution to a problem. When one’s reliance on humor progresses to the point of using it as a crutch, it might be time to seek healthier coping mechanisms. It is best to use positive humor over negative humor. This is because negative humor tends to work by distancing oneself from the issue, whereas positive humor actually results in a shift in perspective. Given that one engages with comedy in an unproblematic manner, it can be employed as an incredibly effective way to improve one’s psychological well-being on a daily basis.

 

“Take a moment every day to laugh,” said Thompson. “Ideally, find a friend with the same sense of humor and laugh together.”