Laughter: A Fun Way To Cope

By Robert H. Phillips, Ph.D.

You’ve all heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.”

Is it really true? And if so, how can you learn to make the best use of this medicine?

In this article, we will look at what makes humor beneficial and how you can use this coping strategy to improve the quality of your life.

Some Relative Background

Not so many years ago, the use of humor became more accepted as a healing technique as a result of a book written by Norman Cousins, called, “Anatomy of an Illness, as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.”

Cousins had been stricken with a serious, possibly life-threatening, disease. Although many doctors felt that his prognosis was poor, Cousins took certain aspects of his treatment into his own hands. He utilized the therapeutic benefits of humor by spending hours watching Marx Brothers movies and reruns of different comedies. He discovered that after ten minutes of hearty laughter, he would sleep for two pain-free hours. He also found that these laughter sessions reduced inflammation, a dangerous part of his illness.

The happy ending: Norman Cousins recovered!

In his book, he suggested that every person has a built-in capacity to recuperate from illness and to repair bodily damage.

Because the quality of life is so important, Norman Cousins believed, you should do as much as you can to help yourself improve this quality of life. (Sound familiar?) Cousins felt that laughter can help you to better use other positive emotions. This can help you and your loved ones cope more effectively.

How Does Laughter Help?

Having a good sense of humor can have two important consequences for you.

The first is that you are able to laugh at yourself. Laughing at yourself puts things in a more positive, constructive perspective. By being able to laugh at yourself you can take a lighter view of the world and of your experiences.

The second consequence is that you simply have the ability to laugh. The act of laughing is just as important.

Laughter can have very positive physiological effects on your body. Laughter exercises your lungs. Your diaphragm, an important part of your respiratory process, is strengthened. Your cardiovascular system works more effectively because improved respiration increases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen throughout your body.

Laughing also helps your body to relax. Studies have shown that laughter reduces stress. As soon as you start watching or listening to something that is funny, you will start anticipating the humor. This causes a very short, gradual buildup of stress.

How do you feel this?

Your pulse rate, as well as your blood pressure, may increase, respiration may change, muscles may tense, among other changes. After the punch line or when you stop laughing, this short buildup of stress decreases. The tension that has built up will be eliminated along with some of the tension that you were feeling even before the humorous situation started. So your tension will end up at a level quite a bit lower than it was previously.

Research has indicated that this decrease in tension can last for up to 45 minutes after the humorous situation ends. The more intense the laughter, the greater the effect it will have on tension, and the longer lasting this effect will be.

Let’s continue by discussing some specific ways that laughter can help you.

Laughter in Relief of Pain

Pain is no laughing matter. But through humor, the unpleasant effects of pain can really be diminished.

Pain is made up of both physiological and psychological factors. Research has shown that you can have a positive impact on both categories, especially the psychological factors! The amount of pain that you perceive is based on a number of variables including the situation you’re in, your self-image, your level of activity, and your environment.

So how can humor help to relieve pain? There are four ways.

First, it can distract you from the pain. The more attention you give to discomfort, the more discomfort you’ll feel. On the other hand, if you decrease the amount of attention that you give to pain, you’ll feel less pain. Laughter and humorous situations can certainly draw attention away from the pain.

The second way that humor can relieve pain is by helping you to relax. As we mentioned before, the act of laughing reduces the amount of muscle tension in your body and brings on a greater feeling of relaxation. Tension in the body increases your perception of pain. So, any time you can decrease the amount of tension that you feel, you’ll decrease the pain you feel.

A third way that humor can relieve pain is by improving your attitude. If you have lived with pain for a long time, your attitude has probably suffered! A negative attitude and a negative outlook on life can make you more sensitive to pain. Humor, on the other hand, can help you to feel more positive, and can make you feel happier to be alive. This improvement in outlook can reduce your pain.

Finally, recent research has indicated that laughter can stimulate the brain to produce “arousal hormones,” which prepare us physically for either “fight or flight.” These arousal hormones also stimulate the production of endorphins, which are our own, naturally produced, painkillers. The more you laugh, the more you increase the secretions of endorphins. So laughter actually helps your body to increase its own painkilling capabilities!

Humor as a Stress Conqueror

As you can guess, not only does laughter help to relieve pain, but it can also help you to reduce your emotional stress.

Feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and even guilt can be decreased. You can handle these emotions more easily by finding more humorous situations to enjoy.

For example, let’s talk about how humor can be used to alleviate depression, unpleasant feelings of sadness, helplessness, or worthlessness. Once again, distraction is one way. By being involved in a humorous activity, whether listening or telling, you’ll experience a break in the chain of events that has contributed to your depression.

An interesting fact: wildly funny situations provoking prolonged laughter have been shown to improve the conditions of even severely depressed people.

Humor can also reduce depression by helping you to review your situation more objectively. When you are depressed, your thinking is distorted. You are not able to view your situation objectively because you’re looking at it so emotionally. If humor can temporarily “separate” you from these distorted thoughts, you may be able to “step outside of yourself” and look at what is going on objectively. This appraisal may help you to reduce, if not eliminate, your depression.

Research has shown that humor in therapy can be very helpful in treating depression. An appropriate, funny comment, inserted at the right time, can help lighten the mood, distract from negative feelings that are going nowhere, and help both the therapist and the depressed individual look at the situation more objectively and constructively.

In order for humor to work in this way, though, there should be at least some degree of relevance to the situation. For a therapist simply to say, “Did you hear the joke about…,” if it has no relevance to the subject being discussed, it may end up making things worse. However, if humor can be found in a depressing situation, and can be used appropriately, it may help.

A Comedic Conclusion

There are many ways that humor can be therapeutically beneficial, such as the following:

  1. Humor can help you reduce tension and enjoy a more comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.
  2. Humor makes possible a less threatening, more tolerable way of expressing unpleasant feelings, behaviors, and impulses.
  3. Humor helps you to see life in a more constructive way, enabling you to communicate more effectively and positively with others.
  4. Humor can assist you in reducing conflicts or other emotional disturbances.

Can you think of more? Probably. But regardless, humor can help. So whether you enjoy funny movies (a la Norman Cousins), read funny books, or cartoons, listen to comedy albums, watch humorous television programs, browse humorous websites, or attend live comedy shows, there are many ways that you can laugh more. Try them.

As you introduce more humor in your life, you’ll feel better, and life will be rosier, regardless of any problems you may be dealing with.

Which reminds me of the joke….


How Can We Help?

Many people from all over the world have benefited from the successful, strategy-packed mental health services offered by The Coping Counselors at the Center for Coping. You can, too!

  • If you have questions about any of the issues you are dealing with, why not set up a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Coping Counselors?
  • Simply call us at (516) 822-3131, with any questions or to set up your free appointment.
  • Or e-mail us at We’ll be happy to respond to your e-mail.

The Coping Counselors- Providing quality psychological services for more than 35 years!