Discover the benefits of laughter and play for mental health

Discover the benefits of laughter and play for mental health

Most of us love to laugh. Particularly if we’ve had a stressful day or need to let go of something. Who doesn’t feel revitalized and happy after a good belly laugh? Laughter is something very natural to us – it represents an expression of joy across every language and culture. In fact, scientists think that it could be one of the first forms of human communication, even before language.

Babies start smiling and laughing at just a few weeks. Looking at a smiling or laughing baby is enough to lighten almost anyone’s mood! Naturally all faces will turn towards him or her and all is forgotten, even if it’s just for a minute. We can’t resist smiling back! However, laughter can also be used as a way of distracting ourselves from emotions that we find hard to handle.

In this article discover why smiling, laughing and play can have such a profound effect on us! To bring balance to the discussion, we also explore some of the downsides of excess laughter and how we might use laughter to manage our emotional states.

Laughter is the best medicine

Doctors and psychologists have found that laughter can be used to change the physical and mental wellbeing of their patients. In fact, they have found that an atmosphere of humour results in more effective treatment, less anaesthesia time and shorter hospital stays. The most well-known advocate for laughter as medicine is the late Norman Cousins. When diagnosed with a serious illness, he prescribed himself regular doses of laughter by watching Candid camera. He found that he could relieve some of his symptoms just by laughing and so began to study the medical benefits of laughter. Another pioneer of laughter as medicine is Dr Hunter Campbell. He realized the importance of compassion and laughter and opened what is now the Gesundheit Institute. Here they train doctors to engage in fun activities such as clowning trips to hospitals and prisons.

Health benefits of laughter

Since these pioneers of laughter as medicine, studies have validated the physical benefits of laughter and play as it can:

  • strengthen the immune system
  • reduce blood pressure
  • reduce stress hormones
  • release endorphins (feel good hormones)
  • relieve pain
  • improve cardiac health
  • work your abs
  • improve your breathing
  • release physical tension and can leave muscles relaxed for as long as 45 minutes!

As there is a strong link between the body and the mind, positive changes in physical health can have a profound effect on mental health.

The benefits of laughter on mental health

Have you noticed that when you are laughing, it is hard to be angry or stressed? It is very difficult to be upset when you are genuinely laughing. This is largely because of the relaxation response induced by laughing and this can benefit our mental health in the following ways:

  • Laughter is a great way to let go of emotions that have been suppressed, such as grief.
  • It can diffuse anger. Seeing the humour in something that frustrates you can help. This is probably why looking at funny comics of politicians has always been very popular!
  • It can ease distressing emotions such as anxiety or stress (through the release of feel-good hormones).
  • It can centre you, bringing your awareness back into your body and away from the chattering mind.
  • It can relax and revitalise. When stress is reduced, our energy levels increase and this helps us to focus more easily.
  • It can change your perspective. If we can laugh at something, we may begin to see it in a new and perhaps less scary way. It helps us to take things a bit less seriously.
  • Remember laughter is contagious! It can make others smile and feel happier and this can improve relationships and your connections with others. Having fun with others helps to foster empathy, trust and compassion. Positive social interactions are important to mental well-being.

Are there any downsides to laughter?

At La Crisalida, we believe that balance is the optimal way of being. Although there are real benefits to laughter, anything in excess can bring problems.

Here are some of the possible downsides to relying on laughter too much:

  • Laughter can be used to distract ourselves from some uncomfortable truths. Next time you are laughing with your friends, check whether there are emotions that are making you feel uncomfortable.
  • Comedy and tragedy can come together. Many comedians have suffered from depression, and laughter can be linked with the misfortune of others.
  • In certain contexts, too much laughter can even stop us forming emotional connections with others and therefore more intimate relationships.
  • Laughing at others rather than with them can build mistrust and lead to negative outcomes.
  • Laughter and comedy can become distracting at a time when things need to be treated seriously.
  • Too much laughter/comedy can be linked with acting like a fool which can create reputational damage e.g. in your career.

Ideas to help you laugh more

If you know that you need to lighten up a bit more or you’ve got in a negative rut, here are some suggestions of how we can start to create a playful sense of fun in our lives:

  • Dance around the house to your favourite music. You can use the hairbrush as a microphone?!
  • Get together with people that make you laugh by telling funny stories or jokes
  • Join a laughter yoga or laughter meditation class. Read more about laughter meditation (external link) from Deepak Chopra.
  • Borrow a dog or volunteer at a dogs home. Young dogs especially have a great sense of fun and dog walking is a great way to meet people.
  • Invite a few friends around for dinner and a game of Charades
  • Play board or card games. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could try Twister!
  • Depending on the season, you could build a snowman, sandcastle, throw some autumn leaves with a friend or put on your wellies and jump in puddles.
  • Try rebounding (trampolining) to your favourite playlist.
  • Spend some time around kids – they are experts at fun!

Laughter through play

As children, we used to laugh hundreds of times a day. In fact, did you know that a child laughs 300 times a day while an average adult laughs only about 17 times a day? And what do kids like doing more than anything? Play!

As adults we can feel inhibited about play. We might be afraid of being judged as childish, but is acting with childlike abandonment really such a bad thing when you think about the many physical and mental benefits of laughter? The key is to try it and not to worry about feeling silly. Give yourself permission to play and after a while, you will probably get into it! If your excuse is that you are too busy and don’t have time, change your habits, turn off your phone and TV and try something new and fun. Find your inner child by setting aside regular quality playtime. Remember the more you make a habit of laughing and playing the easier it becomes!

How you chose to reconnect with the fun and laughter in your life is not important. When you seek out more opportunities for play and laughter, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and maybe even add years to your life.

If you would like to rekindle your zest for life and reconnect with the life you love, La Crisalida runs life makeover retreats – you can find out more by following the link.

About the author

Amanda is one of our programme team, who teaches yoga, leads walks and workshops and more.