Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

How Can We Laugh?

I gave a talk earlier this week for the World Health Organization as part of their weekly series on mental health. This initiative is part of their expanded efforts to support the mental health of their global workforce. The discussion topic was managing stress during challenging times. 

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We talked about stress associated with the holidays, particularly in the context of the pandemic. I shared a number of different coping strategies that can help maintain our mental health during these difficult times, including laughter.     

1. “How can we laugh at a time when life is so difficult and there is so much suffering in the world?” With hundreds of World Health Organization employees participating from around the world, we had a steady flow of questions and comments in the (Zoom) chat. This one stayed with me because it gets to the heart of the topic. Is it really okay to laugh when there is so much loss and grief and hardship in the world? In the right context, it is not only okay, but incredibly helpful. Why?

2. Laughter is good for our brains. It stimulates the pleasure center of the brain and engages a network of subcortical regions, including the nucleus accumbens —  a key component of the brain’s reward system. Laughter also activates the insular cortex, a brain region crucial for the experience of emotions. When we laugh, we are able to find some temporary relief from the heavy load shouldered in stressful times. Imagine carrying an armoire up ten flights of stairs. You will probably want – or rather, need –  to pause on a few landings along the way to catch your breath. Laughter offers us a similar respite by restoring our capacity to cope during times of stress.

3. Laughter helps us form social bonds. Sharing a good laugh with someone relieves stress and builds trust. The brain responds to laughter with the same positive effects as when primates engage in grooming each other – leading some to say that laughter is a form of emotional “grooming.” Laughter enhances the experience of affection and bonding. In the workplace, It breaks down barriers and promotes teamwork. Social connection helps protect against the wear and tear of intense or enduring stress. Sharing a good laugh can help nurture that social connection.

4. Laughter relieves pain. Like exercise, laughing has the effect of releasing endorphins that improve our ability to increase our pain threshold. Like exercise, laughter increases our heart rate, contributing, in turn, to greater cardiovascular health. And it isn’t just spontaneous laughter that’s good for the heart. Even simulated laughter that increases heart rate has cardiac benefits.

5. Laughter reduces stress. Laughter decreases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. It does not need to be belly-aching laughter. Even smiling, spontaneous or intentional, can help diminish stress. When we laugh, we experience increases in lymphatic circulation, positive regulation of cortisol levels and improved production of infection-fighting antibodies. Remarkably, even when we are in stressful situations that are not especially conducive to laughter, if we manage to “grin and bear it,” our brains and bodies respond with improved cardiovascular functioning and reduced stress.

These are challenging and stressful times. Layering on the upcoming holidays and the uninvited pandemic guest, Omicron, is surely taxing all of us and drawing down our resilience reserves. Adding laughter to our coping repertoire is not about ignoring or denying the heavy burdens people are carrying all around the world. Laughter (along with other coping strategies) is about leaning in and finding that landing place, taking a breather, resting our minds, and refueling in a way that protects and promotes our mental health so we can resume the climb and reduce our risk of injury along this very stressful stretch of the journey.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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