Laughter is Good Medicine

By Midge Leavey

April Fools Day starts National Humor Month off just right by being the most popular day for pranks and laughter. However, you can—and should—continue laughing all year round. Laughter is known to promote emotional and physical wellbeing, so it’s important to add humor to your everyday life.

Personally, I know firsthand how a humor-filled home can keep your family connected. Luckily, my life has always been surrounded by laughter. My dad, whose birthday falls on April Fool’s Day, was the biggest jokester around. When I reminisce about my childhood, the first thing I think of is all the crazy things my dad did to make us laugh. He would dress up in silly leopard shorts and prance around the yard or throw pots and pans down the stairs to scare us while we watched scary movies. He’d even dress up in a trench coat and scratch outside the windows to freak us out. These silly antics kept the family connected not only at that moment, but also for hours or weeks later. We would later discuss over dinner how funny his prank was. His jokes and mischief always brought laughter into our day and sparked hundreds of family conversations.

You can bring more laughter into your home and keep your family happy by being a model for your children and rewiring your brain. According to psychologist and happiness researcher Shawn Achor, we can rewire our brains to be happier people by following five simple habits: (1) think of three things you’re grateful for; (2) write about a positive experience from the past 24 hours; (3) exercise; (4) meditate; and (5) perform one random act of kindness. If you do these every day, for 30 days it can change the neural pathways in your brain, making happiness second nature.

So, the big question is: Do you have enough laughter in your life and home right now? If the answer is no, try these simple ways to bring more happiness and smiles into your life:

• Spend time with old friends and reminisce about the silly things you did way back when.
• Take Selfies with a friend or your kids while making goofy faces.
• Send your child or friend a totally ridiculous Snapchat.
• Play with a cat or dog (which has been proven to boost mood).
• Jump out of your comfort zone and try something new.
• Watch a funny movie.
• Catch some stand-up comedy on TV.
• Initiate a running race with your child or your spouse.

Science has proven that laughter is contagious. Dr. Sophie Scott, senior research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said “It seems that it’s absolutely true that ‘laugh and the whole world laughs with you’. We’ve known for some time now that when we are talking to someone we often mirror their behavior, copying the words they use and mimicking their gestures. Now we’ve shown that the same appears to apply to laughter, too—at least at the level of the brain.”

One study’s researchers played various sounds to volunteers while measuring their brain responses using an MRI scanner. Some sounds were positive, for example laughter or cheering, while others were unpleasant, such as screaming or retching. All of the sounds triggered a response in the premotor cortical region of the brain, which prepares facial muscles to respond accordingly. However, the response was greater for positive sounds, suggesting that these were more contagious than negative examples. The researchers believe this explains why we respond to laughter or cheering with an involuntary smile.

The powerful tool called laughter boosts the immune system, relieves stress, and alleviates pain. It can even increase blood flow, which protects the heart. Laughter is not only good medicine physically but emotionally, as well. Humor lightens your mood, connects you to others, and keeps you more focused by boosting the immune system and triggering the release of endorphins—known as the “happy chemical”, which promote emotional and physical well being.

Humor has also been shown to benefit our wellbeing from our toddler years. Dr. Paul McGhee, PhD, president of The Laughter Remedy in Wilmington, DE and author of Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health said, “Children who initiate humor have been found to show more social participation in activities. They also tend to be judged by their peers as being more sociable. This is true from the preschool years on through high school and into adulthood. Children who know how to use humor in social interaction are also better at putting others at ease. This creates an environment in which all communication is easier—an enormous benefit at all stages of life.” Kids who initiate humor more often have also been found to be seen as more likeable by other children. Thus, these kids tend to be more popular and have more friends. Humor also provides children with a socially acceptable means of expressing anger. This will facilitate the handling of conflicts in social situations throughout the developmental years.

Is your sense of humor genetic? Some researchers do, in fact, believe there is a funny gene. However, it’s extremely hard to prove. Therefore, there can be disagreements between humor nature vs. nurture. For example, there’s no telling how humor is engrained since an identical set of twins who share DNA and the same upbringing can have two totally different personalities. One can have a fantastic sense of humor and the other may not.

I have found, however, more often than not, that humorous parents tend to raise humorous kids. My four siblings and I all have great senses of humor. We seemed to have inherited our dad’s love of antics and playing with our children. For example, oftentimes when my boys were younger, I would wait for them to get off of the school bus while wearing roller blades on my feet, hockey stick in hand, and nets set up outside the house ready to play. They would run towards me with excitement. We would play a hardcore game of street hockey and eventually tumble on the grass, sweating and laughing from all the fun.

Like my father, I’ve been known to scare the daylights out of my kids, sneaking around corners and creeping up on them. I also liked leaving a chain of fun notes all over the house for them to find. For instance, the first note would say “I love you”; then the next one, set up in the living room, would read “Still loving you”; the third note, on the bathroom mirror, would say “Guess what? I love you!” And the last note, which I’d leave one on the door before they left the house, would say, “I bet you thought I was done!” I’d leave funny notes in their lunchboxes, as well, so I could bring a smile to their face even when I wasn’t there.

Regardless of where our funny bone comes from, there is no better way to go through life than bringing, sharing and teaching happiness, laughter and joy.