Laughter: Mood Stabilizer and Antidepressant

One of the most positive characteristics of good mental health is a sense of humor. Even as early as the 13th century, physicians and philosophers described the health benefits of laughter. Clinical psychologist Rod A. Martin, Ph.D., of the University of Western Ontario, describes sense of humor as “habitual individual differences in all sorts of behaviors, experiences and … abilities relating to amusement [and] laughter.” Far from being an isolated trait, humor is so wide ranging it can certainly be labeled as a genuine emotional response — therapeutic, and therefore, healthy.

Psychological studies continue to suggest that a sense of humor improves mental health. People who possess this trait are often more motivated, cheerful, and exhibit higher self-esteem. Researchers have discovered evidence that humor and laughter may even have beneficial effects on our immune systems, our tolerance to stress and pain, blood pressure, longevity, and how we respond to symptoms of certain illnesses. Because a sense of humor itself is so hard to describe, it’s difficult to isolate specific physical benefits, but there’s no doubting the fact that genuine laughter makes us feel better. Even Sigmund Freud viewed a sense of humor as “a rare and precious gift … the highest of the defense mechanisms. By means of humor,” stated Freud, “one refuses to undergo suffering … and victoriously upholds the pleasure principle, yet all without quitting the ground of mental sanity.”

Dr. Martin performed a study in which 80 adults kept a “humor diary,” recording each incident during which they laughed aloud, and their stress levels and mood at the time. Fifty-six percent of their laughter occurred spontaneously during social interactions. Laughter in response to radio, television and the like accounted for 18%, while laughter resulting from the humorous retelling of a past event made up 15% of the total. Interestingly, laughing in response to a joke was the least common, only 11% of the total incidents. Laughter was more frequent in the evening, and nearly 90% of laughter took place when the subject was with other people, with nearly two-thirds of the incidents in response to funny remarks made by others.

Two of the most interesting aspects of this study were the positive effects of laughter on emotional well-being, and the “leveling” effect of laughter on stress and mood. The subjects who laughed more often did not report being in a bad mood in response to stressful events. In fact, men who laughed more frequently during the day tended to describe stressful situations as challenging and invigorating, rather than intimidating and harmful.

My experience supports these findings one hundred percent. A humorous outlook, no matter how serious the situation, contributes significantly to the success of counseling, therapy, or just plain feeling better. And what is success? Nothing more than achieving whatever goals you set out to achieve. Seeing yourself objectively, or with detachment is an effective method for resolving whatever conflicts or issues you may face.

It’s easy to give brilliant advice to others; objectively recognizing their flaws and strong points. But it’s a lot more challenging to apply that same objectivity to yourself. The capacity to detach is a powerful technique for self-evaluation and assessment. And a sense of humor, along with all the positive psychological and physical effects, is an effective tool for doing just that. Just as a comedian stands back and views life from a funny angle, the talent for observing yourself impartially, from a distance, can’t be overemphasized.

So how can you do it? In times of stress, try to look at the situation neutrally, without emotion. Look at yourself as you would look at another person. Try to recognize, in Dr. Martin’s words, your “individual differences in all sorts of behaviors and experiences….” Observe these differences — the good AND the bad. Learning to get out of your own way and to bypass your emotional baggage will help you take yourself a little less seriously. It might even generate a smile or a laugh. The positive effect on your psychological and physical well-being will prove once again that laughter really is the best medicine.

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