(You can also listen to Dr. Gibson speak on this topic on the podcast. Click here to listen.)
Laughter is Amusement and pleasant surprises—and the laughter they can trigger—add texture to the fabric of daily life.
Those giggles and guffaws can seem like just silly throwaways. But laughter, in response to funny events, actually takes a lot of work, because it activates many areas of the brain: areas that control motor, emotional, cognitive and social processing.
As I found when writing "An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor," (see Article below) researchers now appreciate laughter's power to enhance physical and mental well-being.
Laughter's physical power
People begin laughing in infancy, when it helps develop muscles and upper body strength. Laughter is not just breathing. It relies on complex combinations of facial muscles, often involving movement of the eyes, head and shoulders.
Laughter—doing it or observing it—activates multiple regions of the brain: the motor cortex, which controls muscles; the frontal lobe, which helps you understand context; and the limbic system, which modulates positive emotions. Turning all these circuits on strengthens neural connections and helps a healthy brain coordinate its activity.
By activating the neural pathways of emotions like joy and mirth, laughter can improve your mood and make your physical and emotional response to stress less intense. For example, laughing may help control brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, similar to what antidepressants do. By minimizing your brain's responses to threats, it limits the release of neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol that can wear down your cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems over time. Laughter's kind of like an antidote to stress, which weakens these systems and increases vulnerability to diseases.
Laughter's cognitive power
A good sense of humor and the laughter that follows depend on an ample measure of social intelligence and working memory resources.
Laughter, like humor, typically sparks from recognizing the incongruities or absurdities of a situation. You need to mentally resolve the surprising behavior or event—otherwise you won't laugh; you might just be confused instead. Inferring the intentions of others and taking their perspective can enhance the intensity of the laughter and amusement you feel.
To "get" a joke or humorous situation, you need to be able to see the lighter side of things. You must believe that other possibilities besides the literal exist—think about being amused by comic strips with talking animals, like those found in "The Far Side."
Laughter's social power
Many cognitive and social skills work together to help you monitor when and why laughter occurs during conversations. You don't even need to hear a laugh to be able to laugh. Deaf signers punctuate their signed sentences with laughter, much like emoticons in written text.
Laughter creates bonds and increases intimacy with others. Linguist Don Nilsen points out that chuckles and belly laughs seldom happen when alone, supporting their strong social role. Beginning early in life, infants' laughter is an external sign of pleasure that helps strengthen bonds with caregivers.
Later, it's an external sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation. For example, public speakers and comedians try to get a laugh to make different studies found that
audiences feel psychologically closer to them, to create intimacy.
By practicing a little laughter each day, you can enhance social skills that may not come naturally to you. When you laugh in response to humor, you share your feelings with others and learn from risks that your response will be accepted/shared/enjoyed by others and not be rejected/ignored/disliked.
In studies, psychologists have found that men with Type A personality characteristics, including competitiveness and time urgency, tend to laugh more, while women with those traits laugh less. Both sexes laugh more with others than when alone.
Laughter's mental power
Positive psychology researchers study how people can live meaningful lives and thrive. Laughter produces positive emotions that lead to this kind of flourishing. These feelings—like amusement, happiness, mirth and joy—build resiliency and increase creative thinking. They increase subjective well-being and life satisfaction. Researchers find that these positive emotions experienced with humor and laughter correlate with appreciating the meaning of life and help older adults hold a benign view of difficulties they've faced over a lifetime.
Laughter in response to amusement is a healthy coping mechanism. When you laugh, you take yourself or the situation less seriously and may feel empowered to problem-solve. For example, psychologists measured the frequency and intensity of 41 people's laughter over two weeks, along with their ratings of physical and mental stress. They found that the more laughter experienced, the lower the reported stress. Whether the instances of laughter were strong, medium or weak in intensity didn't matter.
Maybe you want to grab some of these benefits for yourself—can you force laughter to work for you?
A growing number of therapists advocate using humor and laughter to help clients build trust and improve work environments; a review of five different studies found that measures of well-being did increase after laughter interventions. Sometimes called homeplay instead of homework, these interventions take the form of daily humor activities—surrounding yourself with funny people, watching a comedy that makes you laugh or writing down three funny things that happened today.
You can practice laughing even when alone. Intentionally take a perspective that appreciates the funny side of events. Laughing yoga is a technique of using breathing muscles to achieve the positive physical responses of natural laughing with forced laughter (ha ha hee hee ho ho).
Researchers today certainly aren't laughing off its value, but a good deal of the research on laughter's influence on mental and physical health is based on self-report measures. More psychological experimentation around laughter or the contexts in which it occurs will likely support the importance of laughing throughout your day, and maybe even suggest more ways to intentionally harness its benefits.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Provided by The ConversationAPA citation: Laughing is good for your mind and your body – here's what the research shows (2020, November 23) retrieved 24 November 2020 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-11-good-mind- body.html
Psychology of Humor Article Janet M. Gibson, Ph.D. Grinnell College
Humor is observed in all cultures and at all ages.(Peter McGraw of The Humor Code https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-humor-code/201109/the-importance-humor- research) But only in recent decades has experimental psychology respected it as an essential, fundamental human behavior.
Historically (The sense of Humor book on personality, Ruch) psychologists framed humor negatively,(Lefcourt’s book) suggesting it demonstrated superiority, vulgarity, Freudian id conflict or a defense mechanism to hide one’s true feelings. In this view, an individual used humor to demean or disparage others, or to inflate one’s own self-worth. As such, it was treated as an undesirable behavior to be avoided. And psychologists tended to ignore it as worthy of study.
But research on humor has come into the sunlight of late, with humor now viewed as a character strength. Positive psychology, a field that examines what people do well, notes that humor can be used to make others feel good, to gain intimacy or to help buffer stress. Along with gratitude, hope and spirituality, a sense of humor belongs to the set of strengths positive psychologists call transcendence; together they help us forge connections to the world and provide meaning to life. Appreciation of humor correlates with other strengths, too, such as wisdom and love of learning. And humor activities or exercises result in increased feelings of emotional well-being and optimism.
For all these reasons, humor is now welcomed into mainstream experimental psychology as a desirable behavior or skill researchers want to understand. How do we comprehend, appreciate and produce humor?
What it takes to get a joke
Understanding and creating humor require a sequence of mental operations. Cognitive psychologists favor a three-stage theory of humor. To be in on the joke you need to be able to:
Mentally represent the set up of the joke.
Detect an incongruity in its multiple interpretations.
Resolve the incongruity by inhibiting the literal, nonfunny interpretations and
An individual’s knowledge is organized in mental memory structures called schemas. When we see or think of something, it activates the relevant schema; Our body of knowledge on that particular topic immediately comes to mind.
For example, when we see cows in a Far Side cartoon, we activate our bovine schema (stage 1). But when we notice the cows are inside the car while human beings are in the pasture grazing,
there are now two mental representations in our conscious mind: what our preexisting schema mentally represented about cows and what we imagined from the cartoon (stage 2). By inhibiting the real-world representation (stage 3), we find the idea of cows driving through a countryside of grazing people funny. “I know about cows” becomes “wait, cows should be the ones in the field, not people” becomes an appreciation of the humor in an implausible situation.
Funny is the subjective experience that comes from the resolution of at least two incongruous schemas. In verbal jokes, the second schema is often activated at the end, in a punchline.
That’s not funny
There are at least two reasons that we sometimes don’t get the joke. First, the punchline must create a different mental representation that conflicts with the one set up by the joke; timing and laugh tracks help signal the listener that a different representation of the punchline is possible. Second, you must be able to inhibit the initial mental representation.
When jokes perpetuate a stereotype that we find offensive (as in ethnic, racist or sexist jokes), we may refuse to inhibit the offensive representation. Violence in cartoons is another example; In Roadrunner cartoons, when an anvil hits the coyote, animal lovers may be unable to inhibit the animal cruelty meaning instead of focusing on the funny meaning of yet another inevitable failure.
This incongruity model can explain why older adults do not comprehend jokes as frequently as younger adults. Due to declines tied to the aging process, older adults may not have the cognitive resources needed to create multiple representations, to simultaneously hold multiple ones in order to detect the incongruity, or to inhibit the first one that was activated. Getting the joke relies on working memory capacity and control functions. However, when older adults succeed in their efforts to do these things, they typically show greater appreciation of the joke than younger adults do and report greater life satisfaction than those who don’t see the humor.
There may be other aspects to humor, though, where older adults hold the advantage. Wisdom is a form of reasoning that increases with age and is correlated with subjective well-being. Humor is linked with wisdom – a wise person knows how to use humor or when to laugh at oneself.
Additionally, intuition is a form of decision-making that may develop with the expertise and experience that come with aging. Like humor, intuition is enjoying a bit of a renaissance within psychology research now that it’s been reframed as a major form of reasoning. Intuition aids humor in schema formation and incongruity resolution, and we perceive and appreciate humor more through speedy first impressions rather than logical analysis.
Traveling through time
It’s a uniquely human ability to parse time, to reflect on our past, present and future, and to imagine details in these mental representations. As with humor, time perspective is fundamental
to human experience. Our ability to enjoy humor is enmeshed with this mental capacity for time travel and subjective well-being.
People vary greatly in the ability to detail their mental representations of the past, present and future. For example, some people may have what psychologists call a negative past perspective – frequently thinking about bygone mistakes that don’t have anything to do with the present environment, even reliving them in vivid detail despite the present or future being positive.
Time perspective is related to feelings of well-being. People report a greater sense of well-being depending on the quality of the details of their past or present recollections. When study participants focused on “how” details, which tend to elicit vivid details, they were more satisfied with life than when they focused on “why,” which tend to elicit abstract ideas. For example, when remembering a failed relationship, those focusing on events that led to the breakup were more satisfied than those dwelling on abstract causal explanations concerning love and intimacy.
One study found that people who use humor in positive ways held positive past time perspectives, and those using self-defeating humor held negative past time perspectives. This kind of study contributes to our understanding of how we think about and interpret social interactions. Such research also suggests that attempts to use humor in a positive way may improve the emotional tone of details in our thoughts and thereby our moods. Clinical psychologists are using humor as a treatment to increase subjective well-being.
In ongoing recent work, my students and I analyzed college students' scores on a few common scales that psychologists use to assess humor, time perspective and the need for humor – a measure of how an individual produces or seeks humor in their daily lives. Our preliminary results suggest those high in humor character strength tend to concentrate on the positive aspects of their past, present and future. Those who seek humor in their lives appear in our study sample also to focus on the pleasant aspects of their current lives.
Though our investigation is still in the early phase, our data support a connection between the cognitive processes needed to mentally time-travel and to appreciate humor. Further research on time perspectives may help explain individual differences in detecting and resolving incongruities that result in funny feelings.
Learning to respect laughter
Experimental psychologists are rewriting the book on humor as we learn its value in our daily lives and its relationship to other important mental processes and character strengths. As the joke goes, how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it has to want to change.
Studying humor allows us to investigate theoretical processes involved in memory, reasoning, time perspective, wisdom, intuition and subjective well-being. And it’s a behavior of interest in and of itself as we work to describe, explain, control and predict humor across age, genders and cultures.
Whereas we may not agree on what’s funny and what isn’t, there’s more consensus than ever among experimental psychologists that humor is serious and relevant to the science of behavior. And that’s no laughing matter.