“The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” — Mark Twain, novelist and writer
Take a moment to think about what you were doing the last time you laughed. Were you with someone or by yourself? Were you reading or watching something humorous, or simply remembering something that happened in the past? And were you already feeling happy when you laughed…or did the act of laughing make you feel happy?
Laughter is a peculiar and remarkable phenomenon of human behavior, and scientific research has shown that it can be beneficial for physical and mental health. For example, several studies have found that laughter can reduce feelings of distress, improve functioning of the immune system, and even help prevent heart disease.
Additionally, psychologists know that laughter is an effective coping mechanism for countering negative thoughts and emotions. According to Tom Kixmiller, a therapist and counselor at our Avon office:
“One of the best ways to heal the body in general is physical activity, and if you’ve ever belly laughed, it can leave you tired. Physical activity and laughter burn off stress and re-balance the body chemistry.
But how can this help someone who is feeling anxious, upset or depressed? After all, we often think of laughter as something people do when they’re already feeling happy, not when they’re sad. While it’s true that we’re more disposed to laugh when we’re in a good mood, the physical act of laughing can also cause us to feel happy.
Laughter and the Facial Feedback Hypothesis
When we think about emotion, it’s easy to assume that physiological changes occur in our body as a result of the emotion we’re feeling. When we’re stressed, we take quicker breaths and our heart beats faster. When we’re sad, we feel lethargic and wear a frown on our face. And when we’re happy, we smile and laugh.
However, our physiological state can also be the cause of our emotions. This is why controlling our breathing can calm us down when we’re feeling overwhelmed, and it’s why the 19th-century psychologist William James famously concluded, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy—we’re happy because we laugh.” Tom elaborates:
“Your brain is constantly monitoring your body, which is why dialectical behavior therapy uses the premise of the ‘half-smile.’ If you make yourself smile, it can shift your mood. It isn’t going to fix everything, but it starts to move you in the right direction. Some studies have shown that even forced smiling or forced laughter can have a positive effect.”
Therefore, laughing can make us feel happy even if we weren’t before. Of course, it can be hard to find the motivation to make ourselves laugh if we’re struggling with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety. This is where humor and comedy can help.
Introducing Mental Health America’s “Laughing for the Health of It” Comedy Show!
Tammi Jessup is the Executive Director of Mental Health America of Hendricks County (MHAHC), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting mental wellness in the community. The organization serves people who have mental health conditions through a combination of school-based and adult education programs, support groups, individual advocacy, and initiatives like its food pantry and holiday gift drive.
When facilitating a mental health support group, Tammi leverages the power of laughter whenever she can. “We talk about whatever is going on in each person’s life, whether they’ve had a good week or a bad week. And we laugh, intentionally, as much as possible. If you have your group of people together and you can get them to laugh about something, it has all those positive impacts on the body and mind.”
As part of its mission to promote mental health, MHAHC hosts an annual event called “Laughing for the Health of It.” One part speaker dinner and one part comedy show, “Laughing for the Health of It” aims to remind people that life can be joyful even with a mental health condition. Tammi explains:
“One in four people is going to have a mental health condition at some point in their lives. We want to help those people and their families lead their best and healthiest lives, and we feel like laughter is an important component of that. We want to help people realize that even when they have a mental health condition, they can still laugh and have a good time.”