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Coping with Tragedy through Laughter

How the therapeutic and contagious act of laughing helps heal.

· health,laughter,depression,tragedy,mood

It’s no secret that we’re living in turbulent times – with controversial politics, terrorism, and a downward shift in human rights taking place right before our eyes. Some would argue we’re heading right back into the Dark Ages. We must find a way to break up the negativity. That’s why finding some humor in it all is so important.

Finding Humor During Dark Times

Just three weeks after 9/11 – one of the darkest periods of American history – Saturday Night Live aired its first show since the tragedy. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced the show, alongside firefighters and police officers who had been working at Ground Zero. What was the reason for this early comeback of the improv comedy series after such a painful event? According to Giuliani, “Having our city’s institutions up and running sends a message that New York City is open for business.” He was right.

During such a dark time in our history, when the nation mourned and people were fearful, having a beacon of hope and a sense of “business as usual” was essential for Americans to feel safe again, so they could start rebuilding their lives and the country. While it was a difficult decision for the cast and crew, SNL resurrected some of what is best about human nature and reminded people that laughter can be healing, and sometimes necessary.

However, when it comes to personal tragedies, such as a death in the family, a loss of a job, or a divorce, finding laughter in sadness can be therapeutic. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness, George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, suggests that “people who show genuine smiling or laughter when they talk about their loss cope better over time,” putting the sufferer at ease.

He also believes that laughter ensures people aren’t alienating their support network with constant grief. By lightening the mood with laughter, even if it’s only through satire or irony, their support network feels reassured and is able to better help the grieving person through the process of loss. It’s about a shared human connection.

Psychiatrist Dr. Anand Desa says, “patients can experience tragic visions, angry visions, ironic visions, comedic visions and more, all about the same event.” So coping with tragedy is about flexibility of your outlook on life.

It’s like laughter boosts the “psychological immune system.”

Health Benefits of Laughter

Professional comedians are the best example of proof that laughter is good medicine. Their self-reflective stories of humorous mishaps show personal growth, intelligence, and healing.

When we laugh, our physiology changes temporarily. Our blood pressure rises, changing the rhythm of our heartbeat and breathing patterns. And when your brain finds errors and inconsistencies in your thinking, it sends us feel-good, pain-relieving endorphins such as dopamine, as well as other opioid peptides in the brain. That is why humor feels so great.

The ability to laugh has many health benefits. In fact, laughter:

  • Offers stress relief
  • Improves mood
  • Promotes emotional resilience
  • Improves life satisfaction
  • Improves personal relationships
  • Increases creativity and problem-solving skills
  • Promotes a healthy immune system
  • May help prevent a stroke or heart attack
  • Reduces the need for pain medication
  • Helps relieve depression

Laughter is Not Only About Jokes

What’s fascinating about laughter is that studies show us that it has “less to do with jokes and more a social behavior, which we use to show people that we like them and that we understand them.” Laughter is an emotional tool we can use with others to feel closer to them, to bond, and to build trust. It is a way to build positive social interactions that may actually improve the quantity and quality of communication between people and groups. However, it requires precise timing to be effective. In addition, researchers suggest laughing for a minimum of 15 minutes a day to potentially experience these types of results.

The best thing about laughter? It’s contagious!

One study suggests that positive emotions are more contagious than negative ones. This is due to the endorphins mentioned earlier that are released during laughter, which help to reinforce social bonds. A study on contagious laughter from the University College London found that “human laughter engages brain areas that facilitate social reciprocity and emotional resonance … promoting social cohesion.”

In her TED Talk by neuroscientist and stand-up comic Sophie Scott, she says that humans and other mammals, including primates and rats, all laugh. Their laughter is associated with tickling, play, and other social interactions.

Helpless, involuntary laughter is different from polite social laughter – which is more of a choice. Scott says that people are good at telling the difference between posed laughter and involuntary laughter (which is longer and more high-pitched.) Posed laughter is an important social cue but sounds more nasal.

Scott points out that you’re 30 more times likely to laugh when you’re with others than when you’re alone – especially with your friends. The act of laughing shows others that you like them or agree with them. However, this contagious behavior is modulated by how well you know someone else.

What makes you laugh? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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