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The Importance of Laughter

By Jen Volland, VP Program Development, NRC Health

Did you know that, on average, women laugh 126% more than men?1 It’s an interesting statistic—but for whatever gender, laughter is one of those activities that individuals can always do more often. It can be spontaneous, or it can be intentional; and besides engaging both the mind and the body, laughter helps people bond.

Many of the benefits of laughter have been well touted, including:

  • Strengthening the immune system. Laughing can decrease stress hormones, increase immune-cell counts, and raise infection-fighting antibodies to improve resistance to disease.
  • Boosting mood. During laughter, endorphins are released that promote various types of well-being, including the temporary reduction of pain. Laughing also has the power to stop distressing emotions, giving the mind a chance to recharge. Laughter may also give us the power to regulate emotions in the face of challenge.
  • Protecting from the damaging effects of stress. Tension can have a lasting impact. Laughing helps to relax muscles for up to 45 minutes, and can foster mental resilience.

Because laughter provides us with so many benefits—many which are healing and renewing—we’re always in need of opportunities for humor and laughter, especially in stressful situations. Even simulated laughter can lead to spontaneous laughter—with both producing the same benefits. accordingly, laughter is one of those things that shouldn’t be held back.

What can you do to use laughter to step outside of your circumstances and increase your likelihood of being able to view things in a new way?

  • Laugh when funny jokes are told. Even the anticipation of laughter can have some of the benefits mentioned above. Become more aware of the opportunities for laughter in your environment.
  • Watch comedies on television. Many individuals feel isolated by social distancing—and watching a funny show can improve well-being. “Group viewing” can even be conducted, in which a set of individuals in their own settings all watch the same show at once. Start a chat during the movie to point out funny things that are happening, or to make jokes at whatever’s occurring on-screen.
  • Avoid bitter or angry laughter. While this kind of laughter may seem beneficial on the surface, it can leave you feeling worse afterward. Cortisol—aroused by negative reactions, including angry laughter—triggers the brain to scan for threats. When triggered, the cortisol response lasts within the body for about an hour, making it easy to get caught up in negative emotions. (Once a good feeling is triggered, on the other hand, the brain begins to look for positivity within the environment again.) Recognize also that some forms of humor aren’t appropriate because their content is at the expense of others or may otherwise be off-limits in the work setting. For all these reasons, it’s a good idea to try to draw humor from things that truly engage those feel-good emotions.
  • Encourage yourself to have good feelings. You might think about a happy event from the past—who was involved, where it was set, what elements of humor it involved. Looking at funny photos, greeting cards, or comic strips is another way to do this.
  • Interact with people who make you laugh. Even if people are not physically in the same location, they can still connect over the phone or via platforms like Skype or Zoom. Know who the people are who make you laugh, and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Not only will it be advantageous to your health, but it will help you continue to feel part of a broader social community.

Laughter therapy can also be used to relieve stress and pain at work. Starting a shift with a bit of laughter can help build resiliency and a sense of community among peers working together, and help to keep cortisol from spiraling out of control during patient care if things get difficult. One effective method to inspire laughter throughout a work shift can be the use of a warm-up exercise as a group. Starting the laughter process can be done with three simple steps.

  1. Form a circle.
  2. Place your arms in the air.
  3. Lower your arms together, as as you do, have one person start artificially laughing. Others in the circle will join in, and the laughter will become spontaneous. Do these three steps multiple times. The more staff join in the exercise, the easier it will become!

A few words of caution in closing. Laughter is something we all need more of throughout our day—but during a crisis, it can easily be misunderstood. Limited or unallowed visitation, such as the current pandemic requires, can make a stay more difficult for patients, and they may take overheard laughter out of context or find it inappropriate given whatever may be occurring in another area of the unit. So in the current situation, particularly within the hospital setting, it’s important to be cognizant of your surroundings while laughing. If necessary, use enclosed areas to conduct the above three-step exercise. With a few moments of consideration, a sectioned-off area can usually be found within the hospital—such as a break room, nursing office, or respite room—that will be properly out of earshot.

As the saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine”—so look for more opportunities to laugh, and work to create an environment where laughter can happen.

1 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/laughter