Laugh Your Way to Happiness?

Nothing is as cathartic as laughter. You might try to release tension and aggression through a heavy workout, or sex, or screaming into the wind, but when you really think about it, what else makes all the bad stuff go away as quickly and as successfully as a really, really good laugh?

Due to the nature of comedy and laughter – essentially the fact that it’s funny – the use of comedy for therapeutic purposes is often overlooked. Because it’s tough to take a joke seriously. That doesn’t mean that comedy as a form of therapy hasn’t already been considered, or even applied successfully. It’s just not very commonly known.

Here’s the thing, though – despite the fact that we can all anecdotally agree that laughing is a pretty awesome feeling, and that nurses and therapists have experienced a lot of positive feedback from including humor in their program and treatments, there is very little substantial research on the topic of laughter as a form of therapy in people with depression. Two studies, both focusing on depression in the elderly living in group homes, in two very separate cultures and countries (Iran and Korea) found that laughter therapy – two 90-minute sessions per week for a month and a half – correlated significantly with improved mood and less depressive symptoms.

More science is needed before we can come out and say that laughter is a great way to fight depression from a research point of view, but in terms of plain common sense and anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to argue against the idea that comedy is a great way to feel better when you’re struggling with depression.

Yes, Laughter Therapy Exists

I mentioned previously that the two studies both involved the use of laughter therapy at community homes for the elderly. That’s a thing, yes. Also known as humor therapy, laughter therapy involves laugh-related exercises. Sometimes it’s something as simple (and arguably strange) as practicing fake laughter – while you may feel a little silly doing so, feeling silly is part of the whole point, and even fake laughter can have a momentary effect on your mood. Other examples of exercises include watching comedy clips and following a therapist’s cue on making certain sounds and motions to create vibrations in the mouth and abdomen, triggering laughter in some, and causing others to go along with the chorus.

Aside from treating depression, laughter therapy is also used in cancer groups and chronic pain groups, or when dealing with the pain from terminal illnesses. While it has only recently began getting traction again in modern medicine, laughter therapy is technically centuries old, and humor as an important part of human nature, culture, and society around the world is ancient, arguably as old as booze and cattle.

Before anesthetics and analgesics like nitrous oxide and morphine, surgeons actually used jokes and humor to distract patients from severe pain during surgery, going back all the way to the 13th century. The late Norman Cousins, a political activist and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, published Anatomy of an Illness in 1979 detailing, among other things, how he used comedic films to cope with the chronic pain from ankylosing spondylitis – a type of arthritis of the spine.

So yeah, there is a history behind laughter as medicine, and more recently, hospitals have been incorporating laughter therapy as a legitimate form of therapy for chronic pain. It can also be used effectively for the treatment of depression. Like with other therapies, not everybody is going to respond in the same way, and there is no such thing as a perfect one-size-fits-all cure. But it’s another useful tool in a wide and growing repertoire of ways to combat depressive symptoms and help make life a little brighter.

Dopamine, Serotonin, and Endorphins

You know how people use drugs to feel better? Well, drugs usually work because they’re doing what our brains already do on their own, but in a much more intense fashion. Opioids, for example, are extremely potent painkillers and make people generally very, very happy. But they’re also really addictive, because the feelings of euphoria that you get from a shot of morphine are so unnaturally powerful that your brain actually tries to get used to that feeling, and thus you start struggling to think and feel things like a normal person without the drug.

But morphine only works because it binds to the brain’s opioid receptors, which are usually used by a group of neurotransmitters called endorphins. The strongest of these, beta-endorphin, is stronger than morphine – but is released in much smaller dosages. Researchers have been looking into ways to utilize beta-endorphin in pain management, as an alternative to synthetic and opium-based opioids.

Endorphins are released in response to pain, sexual arousal, exercise, and a slew of other things, and they’re heavily involved in helping regulate our sleep cycles and numbing pain signals. They also affect the reward system in our brain.

Two other significant neurotransmitters in both pain management and depression are dopamine and serotonin. These are both known as “feel-good” neurotransmitters, associated again with things that make us happy, but their roles are much more complex and nuanced that that. Dopamine, for example, is very closely linked to the reward circuit – dopamine helps us learn and adapt and deal with life by reinforcing certain behavior. Since we’re made to run on calories, and we get most of our calories from carbohydrates, we’re easily susceptible to a high-sugar diet because it’s what we tend to like the most. Not everyone likes sweets, but most people do, and a lot of money is made off the fact that dopamine helps reinforce that. Dopamine is also involved in memory improvement, helping us stay attentive, maintain our mood (so we’re not just all over the place emotionally), and more.

Serotonin in particular is targeted often in anti-depression drugs, because inhibiting serotonin reuptake can have a very positive effect on people struggling with severe symptoms of depression. Serotonin also plays a role in digestion and appetite, social behavior, sexual arousal, and again, sleep.

The reason I’m mentioning these neurotransmitters is because they are mobilized by laughter. In other words, laughing triggers the release of these neurotransmitters. That doesn’t mean laughing matches up to a powerful illicit drug, or that we crave it like many people crave sodas, but laughing helps not only because of fuzzy feelings, but because our brains respond well to laughter and humor.

Note that it doesn’t substitute anti-depressive medicine in cases where people need it. Anti-depressives can help many people who would otherwise be caught in an endless cycle of despair and suicidal thinking.

Laughter Won’t Cure Your Depression, But It Helps

Like many other therapies, laughter therapy is an effective way to fight depression, but that does not mean it’s necessarily effective in your specific case. Likewise, comedy alone is unlikely to completely alleviate the symptoms of a depressive disorder or make you “all better”. Treating depression is a big and complicated job, and it involves many possible treatment courses, chosen based on any number of personal factors and circumstances.

That being said, it really doesn’t hurt. I mean really. You might cramp up around the stomach from laughing a little too much, but in general, laughter therapy – and indulging in a good bit of comedy from time to time – doesn’t have any clear drawbacks.

Laughing results in short-term happiness, in the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel good, and in both physical and social benefits. Laughter is contagious, and an environment beset with good moods and lots of cheers is not just going to make the laughter spread (in general), but it’s also more likely to be a positive place afterwards. It brings people closer together, promoting group harmony. And in general, a good belly laugh is good for your health.

It’s About Treating an Individual

This sounds very fuzzy and difficult but remember that I’m talking about laughter as a form of treatment – its potential is something that needs to be properly researched and applied, and more people could benefit from laughter therapy, which is relatively inexpensive and quite effective.

But when talking about stuff like that, it’s also important to recognize that not everyone is going to be benefitting from it, and some people just don’t respond to stuff. So, don’t worry too much if laughter therapy ends up annoying or boring you – there are other ways to get better.

That doesn’t mean comedy can’t be a part of your life, though. Not everyone responds to laughter exercises, but most if not all people can laugh with the right type of comedy. Knowing what you like and who you like is important – take some time to shop around and check out movies, stand up shows, or podcasts. Having someone funny to listen to when you’re feeling down can be a great little tip for daily life.