Up until recently, few researchers paid much scholarly attention to humor as part of the human experience. But now, scientists from various disciplines are analyzing the workings of humor in the human brain—and demonstrating that the purpose humor serves is no laughing matter.
What is humor, and why do humans experience it? Enjoying a good laugh is sometimes looked at as a meaningless, even frivolous, activity. Yet despite its seemingly lightweight nature, humor is actually a sophisticated tension-defusing mechanism, uniquely developed in human beings. Humor promotes good health and helps us address some of the most common health challenges of aging. These benefits fall in four important areas:
Our sense of humor can have a positive impact on the perception of pain. It also benefits the immune system. And the benefits to heart health are especially well documented: Laughter helps keep our blood vessels healthy, lowers blood pressure, and improves cholesterol levels. It is believed that laughter works by relieving stress, which is implicated in so many negative impacts on our health.
Why is humor such an effective stress buster? The process goes something like this: When we experience a stressful or frightening event, certain brain chemicals flood our circulatory system, readying us for “fight or flight.” This process helps us act quickly when we are in real danger—yet in our modern world, we are seldom in life-threatening danger, and over time these chemicals can damage the lining of blood vessels. But humor causes our brain to release endorphins—the natural “feel good” brain chemicals. Built-up tension is released, fear and anger lessened, and the process of laughter relaxes the muscles by giving us a quick workout—a full-body stretch, deep breathing, then relaxation.
How many times have you asked someone: “Are you laughing or crying?” The confusion is no accident: Physically and chemically, laughing and crying are closely related. Yet they are, in a sense, two sides of a coin. Scientists have long speculated about the function of humor in the complex makeup of human emotions. Most believe it developed because, with our highly developed sense of self-awareness, we need the perspective of humor to allow us to lower our wariness.
Humor also helps us gain the perspective that our individual personal challenges are part of the human condition. And though psychologists caution against using humor as a mask to avoid facing grief or other difficult emotions, laughter can help us process painful events. Some hospice specialists use therapeutic humor for patients who are facing the end of life. Even at funerals and memorial services, we often see a classic example of the partnership of sadness and laughter as friends and loved ones share humorous, affectionate stories of the person they have lost. On those occasions, tears of sadness and joy mingle in a soothing blend. Not only physically but also emotionally, humor heals.
Anthropologists say humor is a powerful mechanism that creates bonds among people. It evolved, they tell us, so that early humans, who traditionally lived in close quarters, could defuse tension within their close-knit band.
Humor helps when people are experiencing conflict. Could civilizations survive without it? Even in our modern day-to-day lives, laughter helps us take ourselves less seriously and serves as “social grease” to relieve tension between people.
Scientists have used sophisticated imaging to demonstrate that several areas of the brain work together in a complex way to produce the perception of humor. Many researchers even believe that understanding humor helps lend insight into some fundamentals of human cognition.
Humor gives our brains a good workout. Despite its reputation as a low or even childish mode of thinking, humor is actually a highly developed mental exercise, training us to approach ideas in different, inventive ways. Even the lowly pun requires the brain to shift perspective.
Humor is an individual thing, of course—our personal sense of humor is as unique as any other part of our personality. What makes one person laugh may leave another person perplexed or rolling their eyes. And of course, not every situation is an appropriate setting for laughter. Part of what we think of as a “good sense of humor” is the sensitivity to the sensibilities of our audience.
But for most of us, adding more laughter to life can give a boost to healthy aging in many ways.
Today it may seem more difficult to find the humor in life, and social distancing adds extra challenges. But it’s worth the effort to find the funny. Watch a comedy movie or read a humorous book. Tell jokes to the grandkids. Watch silly YouTube videos. These days, with its combined utilization of mind, body, and emotions, humor is indeed nothing to laugh at!