• Laughter: it's free, it helps connect us with others, it helps us recover from illness, and it lowers stress

  • This Stress Awareness Week Paul Boross shares the research that shows humour is a healthy coping mechanism

  • If you are struggling with stress, we have therapists available to support you here

We’ve all come through a period of great uncertainty, worry, and stress. Finding ways to manage our mood and soothe the mind is more important than ever. With this week being Stress Awareness Week, I wanted to talk about having a laugh. Humour is a simple and powerful way to soothe stress. 

Good health and good humour

The saying goes that laughter is the best medicine. Whilst that may be a slight exaggeration, doctors are well aware of the connection between good health and good humour.

Studies have found that laughing can reduce your blood pressure, increase your pain tolerance, and improve recovery times. One such example is Dr William F. Fry, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, California who examined the physiological effects of laughter in the late 1960s and is considered the father of ‘gelotology’ – the science of laughter. 

His research showed that laughter can decrease your chances of respiratory infections and causes the body to produce endorphins which reduce pain and aid recovery.

The link between humour and resilience

One area where the positive benefits of humour have been very well researched is resilience, the ability of a person to recover from setbacks in life.

Al Siebert, founder of the Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage, discovered that the ability to use playful humour and laughter in times of adversity is powerful, providing a new perspective, redefining the emotional meaning of the situation and leads to more effective actions. He says: “Playing with a situation makes a person more powerful than sheer determination. The person who toys with the situation creates an inner feeling of ‘this is my plaything; I am bigger than it… I won’t let it scare me. I’m going to have fun with this.'”

At times, when your stress levels are high, it can be hard to think of any other way to see a situation, let alone think of funny things to say about it. So, if you can’t step back mentally or emotionally, then step back physically. It can be that simple, just step away from what’s going on to take a minute to process and breathe.

Another way is to change your shoes. The comedian Steve Martin said: “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.” So, change your perspective and consider how someone you trust would tackle this issue, or ask them for their advice. One of the most important things that can happen when you step into someone else’s shoes is that you can get a wider perspective and see your situation in a different way.

Laughter builds social connections

The key to soothing stress is also to be found in your relationships with others. When you’re feeling low, you might want to spend more time alone, which can make the problem worse. Sometimes, the thing you feel least like doing, such as reaching out to friends or just being around other people, is the thing that you need the most.

Researchers at Harvard University have been tracking the health of a group of students since 1938. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. What did they find? “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Vaillant concluded that six factors predicted healthy ageing for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. 

Of the many “mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs” that are available to us, humour is one of the most important, both individually, and for preserving the integrity of the relationships which are so important.

Using humour to destress

As you’ve seen from the various studies quoted and from your own life experience, humour is a simple, free and accessible way to handle stress. Laughing can release the tension you’ve been holding in and distract your thoughts, offering you a moment of peace and joy to regain your senses and calm the mind.

If you find yourself needing a mood boost, one trick that always works for me is using a laughter trigger. Whether it’s a funny video or a story that your friend told you which makes you giggle, just being reminded of something that triggers a laugh can refocus and ground your thoughts.

Life will inevitably throw you a series of curve balls. Your attitude won’t stop nasty surprises, but finding something to laugh about can help you to bounce back quicker, and perhaps even stronger.

Paul Boross is a business psychologist, performance coach and author of new book Humourology: The Serious Business of Humour At Work

Further reading

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

Why you can't make it alone

Understanding different types of stress and trauma responses

Try this 1-minute grounding exercise for a stress free start to your day

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