What’s So Funny? Bringing Levity to Living


The ability to laugh–whether at oneself, a funny joke, or something on television–is key to mental health. What are the physical benefits? Where did laughter originate and how can it improve your relationships? Brad Kennington has the answers.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good laugh? Laughing feels good and is good for you. Laughter can result from a well-crafted joke, a comedy, or some silly situation you may find yourself in. it often happens from simply hearing or seeing someone else laugh; laughter really is contagious! A good laugh can bring much-needed levity to a heavy situation. It can help us feel more at ease with others and ourselves. Laughter can make an awkward moment much more manageable. And it has both physical and mental health benefits, as well.

Those hearty laughs, the kind that can leave you in tears and your stomach sore, can work wonders for our bodies. Laughing can lower blood pressure, decrease stress hormones, increase muscle flexion and boost our immune system by increasing the number of activated t-cells. Laughter can get our blood moving too, by increasing our heart rate and pulse, thus helping us to be more energized to do the activities that we may be putting off.

Research has also shown that laughter can reduce physical pain by triggering our bodies to release endorphins, those natural painkillers Mother Nature blessed us with. A study out of Florida International University found that orthopedic surgery patients who watched comedic videos requested fewer pain killers than the patients who watched dramas. Maybe science is proving what Patch Adams, M.D., has known for a long time–that humor really does help heal.

Laughter can also be a boost to our mental health. With the reduction of stress hormones comes a more relaxed and calmed state free of anxiety and tension. Humor also has a way of shifting our perspective on things. Our moods are often determined by the interpretation we place on an event. A negative interpretation is soon followed by negative feelings. Seeing our circumstance through the lens of laughter helps create some psychological breathing room between us and whatever causes us pain.

Laughter can also lead to greater intimacy in our relationships. Laughing can lower our defensiveness and our inhibitions and allow us to be more spontaneous, forgiving, and genuine with others. Laughter has the power to cool our anger and calm our angst. It can also help a relationship feel emotionally safe, thus strengthening the attraction and attachment between two people. It is through humor that many people, be them friends or partners, connect and reconnect with each other. Last fall I had dinner with a friend from college who I had not seen in nearly 15 years. Within a matter of moments, we were laughing about shared stories from long ago. Laughter bridged the time gap, making the in-between time feel more like 15 days, not years.

Where does laughter come from? Researchers believe that the limbic system in our brain plays a major role in the production of laughter. This region of our brain, sometimes called the “emotional brain,” is involved in producing the emotions and motivations that are crucial to our very survival. The “fight or flight” mechanism and the feelings of pleasure that we experience during eating and sex all arise from the limbic system. And maybe laughter is just as important to our survival, or at least it makes life more survivable.

Too often we take life way too seriously and forget to laugh at one of the more common (and reliable) sources of humor: ourselves. I recently decided to try sculling, so I enrolled myself in a rowing class. Years of tennis and running have taken their toll on my knees, so I thought I would try something with less physical impact. Besides, how hard could rowing a boat be, right? Well, it did not take long for me to find out and be very humbled in the process. During my first solo trip out into the river, I got myself completely turned around and was on course for a head-on collision with the UT rowing team. About that time my rowing instructor, who was watching all this unfold from the pier on the opposite side of the river, started to yell my name through his megaphone for me to correct my course. Every runner and rower in the area knew that some guy named Brad had really screwed up! I was a bit embarrassed, to say the least, but then I began to get tickled at how stupid I’m sure I looked. My embarrassment morphed into humor as I began to laugh at myself, which allowed me to relax, regain perspective, reposition my oars and eventually get back in the correct rowing lane. (No, I did not hit the UT rowers, but I did manage to get tangled in a tree before I finally made it back to the dock.)

Laughter sometimes can catch us by complete surprise and offer us a bit of hope, as well. Many years ago I volunteered at a shelter for abused and neglected children. I was sitting at a desk in one of the offices, working on some fundraising material, when I heard this young girl, a shelter resident, laughing in the kitchen down the hall. I have no idea what got her so tickled, but she was finding a lot of humor in something. Her laugh was the contagious kind, so I stopped what I was working on and just listened to the laughter of a young child who probably knew more pain in her first few years of life than most adults experience in a lifetime. Yet, despite her hurts and fears, or maybe because of them, she was still able to find a reason to laugh. In the midst of her broken world, this little girl found humor and the strength to laugh.

In the words of Emerson, “to laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children… to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better…to know even one life as breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” And to think it all begins with laughter.


Did you know?

The average adult laughs 17 times a day and we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with someone than when we are alone.

Research shows that having a sense of humor is not genetic, but rather a learned trait influenced by one’s family and culture.