Laughing matters: The science behind humor

Lauren Chen and Amrita Himmatraopet

“Laughter is the best medicine” is a common cliché, but countless clinical trials and years of research demonstrate that laughing can actually improve your mental health in a variety of ways. In fact, even at Dougherty Valley, many use laughter as a coping mechanism on a daily basis.

Researchers conducted a study that exposed college students to “depression-inducing stimuli” followed by humorous or non-humorous audio, finding that students who listened to humorous audio exhibited faster reduction in depression levels. According to an article from Newport Academy, “Leading benefits of laughter include stress reduction, strengthened social connections and the release of your body’s ‘feel good’ chemical, endorphins.”

Additional research shows that laughter can have the same effect on your mental health as meditation.

“Joyful laughter immediately produces the same brain wave frequencies experienced by people in a true meditative state,” Dr. Lee Berk, who has studied laughter and health for nearly thirty years, said. 

Even “fake” joviality has demonstrated similar benefits. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that smiling helps reduce the body’s response to stress and even lower heart rate in some situations. Forcing yourself to smile for just 30 seconds daily has been proven to help people feel less stressed and more in control of their life.

David Granirer, a Vancouver-based college counselor and stand-up comedian, founded the program Stand Up for Mental Health in 2004. Granirer, who lives with depression, trains people with mental health issues to perform stand-up comedy in venues across North America. 

“Laughing at our setbacks raises us above them,” Granirer says. “It makes people go from despair to hope, and hope is crucial to anyone struggling with adversity.” 

He has noticed that after performing their routines, the stand-up comedians “overcome long standing depressions and phobias, not to mention [increase] their confidence and self-esteem.”

Dr. Madan Kataria has also explored the therapeutic applications of laughter. He designed Laughter Yoga as a way to promote happiness through “playful group exercises and deep breathing,” according to a CNN article. During a typical session, participants in a Laughter Yoga session simulate laughter. Despite the initial awkward and often forced laughter, the class eventually settles into a comfortable, relaxed environment. The laughter of the participants gradually becomes genuine, helping them to connect with others and lifting their spirits. The class also incorporates breathing and clapping exercises into the routine, creating a fluid and spontaneous class. Laughter Yoga has spread to locations across the country, and although some are skeptical about this growing trend, regular attendees claim that the sessions were successful in alleviating their stress and depression.

However, not all laughter has positive impacts. Matt Newton, a Dougherty Valley psychologist, asserts that humor is only beneficial in certain situations. 

“It needs to be paired with the right clients…[a sense of humor] is unique to the individual. But find what you like, and make sure that you incorporate it into your life,”Newton stated.

Similarly, sophomore Sophie Davis* thinks that using humor can be an effective method to relieve stress but only in limited amounts. 

“You’re using humor to cover something up, but that’s not necessarily healthy because you’re hiding it, and you’re not actually consulting someone about it … it can lower you self esteem, and it can cause issues for you … you should sit down and reevaluate your thoughts and see what you can do to help yourself. You can’t just use it as a wall to hide behind,” she said.

She found that her own use of humor, specifically a dark, self-deprecating humor, substantially harmed her mental health, especially when it led her to feel as if she wasn’t good enough to do anything. Davis reports that talking to people was a better outlet for her.

“It’s a lot better, because it gives you an idea of what you can do instead of just doing it by yourself,” she says.

Newton also gave his input on students’ use of self-deprecating humor. Like Davis, he believes that self-deprecating humor should be controlled and limited.

“It’s just a way to cope and lighten the mood, and it’s easier than just being stern,” he says. “[But] there’s that cliché, ‘too much of a good thing.’ [There are] people that are overly critical of themselves…I don’t think that’s healthy.”

There are both benefits and drawbacks to the medicine that we call humor, but it seems that in the end, it all comes down to the individual. But thanks to research by people like Granirer and Kataria, people are using humor to treat mental illness and boost people’s moods. With millions of Americans struggling with mental health issues every day, new ways to alleviate symptoms and improve lives are always welcome.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.