Monday, April 2, 2012

Healthy Humor

In honor of April Fool's Day yesterday, I thought I'd write a little bit about humor. You may have heard, and have probably experienced, some of the benefits of humor. Laughter, our physical response to humor, is good for body and mind. It relaxes our muscles, improves our immune function and circulation, lowers stress hormones, and triggers the release of endorphines - chemicals that make us feel happy.

Beyond this happy, content feeling, humor and laughter improve mental health by counteracting negative moods like depression and anxiety, dissolving stress, and changing our perspective (in a more positive direction). Positive psychologists have linked humor to resilience. Psychodynamic theorists agree, but call it a "mature defense." It's a defense because it can be used to protect ourselves from pain and discomfort, and it's "mature" because it allows painful and socially unacceptable feelings and wishes to be overtly experienced and expressed in a way that is manageable and unthreatening. In fact, laughing at ourselves and our problems is often the best medicine. Too often, we catastrophize - see things as more dire than they really are - which can lead to depression and anxiety, and leave us less able to respond effectively. In constrast, humor helps us feel better, think more positively, and therefore respond more effectively.

Finally, humor improves our social functioning. It improves relationships, makes us more spontaneous and less defensive, enhances teamwork, and defuses conflict. However, there is a caveat: especially on April Fool's Day, when people may play tricks on each other, it's important to remember that humor at someone's expense (someone else's or our own) can be hurtful, and damage relationships and self-esteem. That would be unhealthy humor!

If you want to improve quality of life, physical, emotional and social health, consider adding some humor to your day:
  • Watch a funny movie or television show
  • Read the comics
  • Smile or laugh, even if it feels like going through the motions (yes, this does work!)
  • Spend time with children, pets, or other playful people
  • Play
  • Laugh at yourself
  • Look for the humor or irony in your problems
Where else do you find humor?

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