We all know common phrases around laughter. With a healthy dose of humor, we not only cope more easily with everyday life but also during particularly difficult and challenging times. Especially when we have a terrible day, private or job-related issues, or even health problems, humor proves to be our knight in shining armor. It does not change our predicament itself, but it does lower our stress levels and helps us see the world with different eyes.
Humor from antiquity to the present
In ancient philosophy, humor received little attention and, if anything, mostly negative. Plato, for example, criticized laughter as an emotion that undermines our self-control and called for strict control of everything comedic. The stoic Seneca, on the other hand, identified humor as a vital element of serenity. He stated: "All things are cause for either laughter or weeping", and concluded: "It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it."
In the course of history, three main humor theories emerged: The Superiority Theory traces back to Aristotle and claims that we laugh when we feel superior. Cicero advocated the Incongruity Theory, which says we laugh when something surprisingly causes us to change our perspective. Sigmund Freud supported the Relief Theory: humor serves to dissolve psychological tensions and to reveal suppressed desires.
In the recent past, the three theories have been unified in one aspect; the focus is on relapsing into old, simpler behavior patterns. The German locution "Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht" (humor is when you laugh anyway), describes another central aspect. Professor Gina Barreca, for example, says that laughter "addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them."
What humor does to our brains
In order to better understand how humor can help us even in the most challenging situations, it is worth taking a look at our inner life. Jokes and humor in general play with our expectations. We see or hear something and hypothesize how the situation will develop. The punch line of the joke undermines, at best, our expectations and surprises us.
The outside of the left brainstem allows us to understand the joke. If we get the punch line, the limbic system becomes active, i.e., the area of the brain in which emotions are processed. The amygdala then signals us that we are amused. Depending on the extent of the amusement, our brain's control station for emotional outbursts forwards the signal to our vocal cords, diaphragm, and facial muscles – and we laugh!
Laughter triggers further processes in our body: on the one hand, it significantly lowers the level of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and on the other hand, when we laugh, happiness hormones such as endorphins and dopamine are released. With humor, we can handle stress better and feel generally happier.
Studies prove: humor helps!
Numerous studies have confirmed the positive effect of humor on our health and well-being. For example, a study published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2010 shows that humor can prolong life. Scientist Sven Svebak examined 500,000 Norwegians over several years and found that the more humorous participants in the study were less likely to get sick and that they had, on average, a 20 percent longer lifespan.
In 2014, the Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart carried out a study with cardiac patients. For seven weeks, the patients practiced reacting to stressful situations with humor rather than negative emotions such as aggression. During this time, they completed a stress questionnaire daily, and their cortisol levels were measured. The results show that humor training significantly reduced the patients' levels of stress.
The result of a three-part study on the influence of humor on stressful life events with psychological consequences was published in the Psychological and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2017. The first part examined fibromyalgia patients who suffer from chronic pain, sleep disorders, and psychological side effects. Students in general stressful situations were tested in the second part, and in the third part, students dealing with the events around 9/11 were tested. All subjects were able to demonstrate that humor helped them to better deal with the particular situation and to re-evaluate it. The study participants also reported that they felt better supported by their fellow human beings.
How medicine takes advantage of humor
To put it in a nutshell: humor lowers the stress level, helps us to look at stressful situations from a different perspective, and strengthens social interaction. It is good for our immune system, our memory, and makes us happy. Today, medicine also takes advantage of these positive effects: Clown doctors make small hospital patients laugh, and depressed patients can find their laughter again with humor training – for example, in psychotherapy with German Prof. Barbara Wild.
Despite all the positive aspects, it is essential to exercise caution and to use humor at the right moment – or, if necessary, to do without it. If someone gets a bad diagnosis, a joke is out of place at first. Schizophrenia, in turn, can rob the ability to understand jokes at all. Sensitivity in dealing with humor is, therefore, essential!
Humor can also be negative
Not every form of humor has a positive effect on our well-being. Research distinguishes between four types: connecting, self-strengthening, aggressive, and self-defeating humor. The first two types aim to amuse and reinforce one's surroundings and oneself – the latter two serve to belittle and make fun of oneself or others. While these are hurtful and negative, the first two types of humor can inspire us and help us deal with everyday life and crises better.
How to train your sense of humor
The good news for people, who sometimes feel like they might have forgotten how to laugh: humor can be practiced. Especially as humor comes in many ways. It does not always have to be roaring laughter, a little smile is sometimes enough to brighten up a dark day.
The writer Mark Twain once said: "Humor is tragedy plus time." This is a good advice to follow, because it often helps to change your perspective and to find something funny. For example, you might ask yourself: What is happening to me right now – will I be able to laugh about it in three months? Another possibility is to imagine that a mishap does not happen to us, but another person. Of course, this only applies to minor mishaps, but if someone stumbles or slips on a banana peel, we laugh according to the Superiority Theory out of sheer malicious joy.
Think about what you used to laugh about – and with whom! Also, think about what you do not find funny. You probably remember jokes, films, or situations that made you laugh. You can then integrate them back into your everyday life: Maybe you have a favorite comedy that you haven't seen in a long time, or you could read a few chapters from a particularly funny novel. On social media, cat content is still king – so feel free to watch funny animal videos if you like little furballs.
Last but not least: act as if! Neurological studies show that smiling causes several chemical reactions in the brain. These cause the happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine to be released and our mood to rise. The more positive you are, the more likely you are to see the humor in things. Fake it till you make it!