Being sick is no laughing matter, but a good belly laugh may be just what the doctor ordered. Humor has a lot of health benefits.
That’s why it can be so important, especially in trying times, to laugh when you can.
We talked to UNC clinical social worker Scott Janssen to learn why smiles and laughter aid healing, and how to bring some funny into your life when you’re dealing with illness.
The Health Benefits of Humor for Your Body and Mind
A giggle does a body good. That’s because laughter is a great antidote to stress, which has detrimental effects on our bodies and minds.
“Laughter increases oxygen intake and helps regulate heart rate and breathing through the relaxation response that often follows in the wake of a laugh,” Janssen says.
This relaxation response lowers your blood pressure and can release muscle tension and the physical clenching that often accompanies stressful situations. Laughter can also release feel-good chemicals called endorphins in your brain. Endorphins reduce your perception of pain.
There is also evidence that laughter can boost your immune system.
And, of course, everyone knows that a good chuckle lightens your load mentally, which is especially important in challenging times, such as during treatment for an illness or rehabilitation.
“Humor offers many mental, emotional and relational benefits,” Janssen says. “It can strengthen a sense of connection with others, reduce feelings of isolation, and help patients access inner strengths and resilience.”
How to Get More Humor in Your Life
It’s true that a forced joke is rarely funny, but you can be strategic about finding humor in your day or bringing humor to others. Take it from a social worker: Depending on the situation, laughter isn’t only appropriate in difficult times, it can make difficult times easier to bear, Janssen says.
So step one is giving yourself permission to laugh and feel happiness, alongside other emotions. You can laugh and still feel sad or frightened.
“Laughing at something that is painful or scary can loosen its power and give patients a break from stressful thoughts and intense emotions and sensations,” Janssen says.
Even if you’re not in the mood for jokes, you can give yourself permission to laugh by watching a comedy show, movie or stand-up special. Call a friend who always makes you laugh.
Another trick to boost your mood? Talk to a child. Children find the funny in situations naturally, and their perspective on the world can be very amusing.
Humor can also be good for children going through a hard time, Janssen says.
“I often use playful facial expressions, exaggerated gestures or funny storytelling with kids as a way of creating a safe space for them to express what they are thinking and feeling,” he says.
Ultimately, what’s important for good health is that we leave space to feel all our emotions, Janssen says—including the fun ones.
If you are struggling with an illness, talk to your doctor. Need one? Find one near you.