Up until recently, little research was done about the topic of humor. Few people took the subject seriously, or paid much scholarly attention to this part of the human experience. But now, researchers from various disciplines are analyzing the workings of humor in the human brain—and demonstrating that the purpose humor serves is no laughing matter.
What is humor, and why do humans experience the phenomenon? Despite its seemingly lightweight nature, humor is actually a sophisticated tension-defusing mechanism, uniquely developed in human beings. Most people appreciate the sensation and seek it out. Perhaps because it is fun, enjoying a good laugh is sometimes looked at as a meaningless, even frivolous, activity.
But humor actually promotes good health, and has a beneficial effect on some of the most common health challenges of aging. These benefits fall in four important areas:
Our sense of humor can have a positive impact on the perception of pain. It also benefits the immune system. And the benefits to heart health are especially well documented: Laughter helps keep our blood vessels healthy, lowers blood pressure, and improves cholesterol levels. It is believed that laughter works by relieving stress, which is implicated in so many negative impacts on our health.
Why is humor such an effective stress-buster? The process goes something like this: When we experience a stressful or frightening event, certain hormones flood our circulatory system, readying us for “fight or flight.” These brain chemicals help us act quickly when we are in real danger—yet in our modern world, we are seldom in life-threatening danger, and over time, these hormones do damage to the lining of blood vessels. But humor makes our brains release endorphins—the natural “feel good” brain chemicals. Built-up tension is released, fear and anger lessen, and the process of laughter relaxes the muscles by giving us a quick workout—a full body stretch, deep breathing, then relaxation.
How many times have you asked someone: “Are you laughing or crying?” The confusion is no accident: Physically and chemically, laughing and crying are closely related. Yet they are, in a sense, two sides of a coin. Scientists have long speculated about the function of humor in the complex makeup of human emotions. Most believe it developed because, with our highly developed sense of self-awareness, we need the perspective of humor to allow us to lower our wariness. Humor is a great distraction and can “take us away” from our cares. It provides a long-lasting mood boost, and is sometimes “prescribed” to help treat depression and anxiety.
Humor also is also a powerful tool for putting our challenges in perspective. And though psychologists caution against using humor as a mask to avoid facing grief or other difficult emotions, laughter can help us process painful events. Some hospice specialists use therapeutic humor for patients who are facing the end of life. Even at funerals and memorial services, a classic example of the partnership of sadness and laughter can often be seen when friends and loved ones share humorous, affectionate stories of the person they have lost. On those occasions, tears of sadness and joy mingle in a soothing blend. Not only physically, but also emotionally, humor heals.
Gerontologists tell us that socialization promotes well-being for seniors—but in our later years, we can experience barriers to social engagement. Anthropologists believe that one of the major functions of humor is its capacity to bond us to other people. Humor is actually a sophisticated mechanism that developed so human beings, who traditionally lived in close quarters, could defuse tension within their close-knit groups.
Humor helps when people are experiencing conflict. Could civilizations survive without it? Even in our modern day-to-day lives, laughter helps us take ourselves less seriously and serves as “social grease” to relieve tension between people. Humor also helped our early ancestors lessen hostility between strangers they encountered. Telling a good joke has long been known as an “ice breaker” that tears down defenses between people.
Did you know that one of the first changes loved ones are apt to notice when a person has early Alzheimer’s disease is a difference in the person’s sense of humor? Brain imaging shows that several areas of the brain all work together in a complex way to produce the perception of humor. Many researchers believe that understanding humor helps lend insight into some fundamentals of human cognition.
Humor is a great tool for sustaining optimum intellectual function. It supports the three important building blocks of brain health: physical, emotional and social well-being. Beyond those benefits, humor also can give our brains a good workout. Despite its reputation as a low or even childish mode of thinking, humor can actually be a highly developed mental exercise, training us to approach ideas in different, inventive ways.
Even the lowly pun requires the brain to shift perspective and “stretch” a little bit.
Humor is an individual thing, of course. Our personal sense of humor is as unique as any other part of our personality. What makes one person laugh may leave another person perplexed or rolling their eyes. And of course, not every situation is an appropriate setting for laughter. Part of what we think of as a “good sense of humor” is the sensitivity to the sensibilities of our audience.
But for most of us, adding more laughter to life can give a boost to healthy aging in many ways. With its combined utilization of mind, body and emotions, humor is indeed nothing to laugh at!
Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2015