Caregiving can be stressful—on both the caregiver and care recipient. Between endless doctors appointments, activities of daily living and the occasional tug of war between safety and independence, everyone could use a little reprieve.
Now more than ever – and especially after living through a pandemic – we need an antidote to stress. And laughter, in all its playful glory, fills that role perfectly.
Laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. It also releases endorphins—those feel-good hormones that help you cope on tough days and eliminate negative thinking.
But that’s not all. Laughter eases muscle tension, decreases pain (including aches caused by arthritis), boosts immunity and even increases blood flow, which wards against heart attack and stroke. It also helps clear mucus from your lungs, lowers blood pressure, slows aging by reducing cellular decay, and secretes an enzyme that protects our stomachs from ulcers. When laughter makes you cry, toxins in the eyes are carried away through tears, preventing infection.
Laughter eases muscle tension, decreases pain (including aches caused by arthritis), boosts immunity and even increases blood flow, which wards against heart attack and stroke.
In light of all the positive effects laughter has on our health, Chris Petrik, RN, BS, director of education at Elderwerks Educational Services, encouraged everyone to laugh each day during her recent webinar “The Benefits of Laughter.” She even helped get them started by opening the virtual presentation with a video of a baby belly laughing to show that laughing is contagious.
“People are three times more likely to laugh with a group than alone,” she explained. “Laughter happens over social responses 15% more of the time than actual jokes.”
For example, watching comedians break character and laugh at each other during comedy sketches often makes people laugh even more.
And what about a correlation between laughter and lifespan? You decide, Petrik said.
“George Burns, Betty White, Jack Benny and Phyllis Diller all lived to ripe old ages. If you look at their comedy, it was a great part of their lives. There is no evidence that humor and laughter add years to your life, but it certainly adds life to your years.”
The difference between laughter and humor
Laughter is a universal, physical act—a sound, expression of merriment or explosive voice often stimulated by humor, Petrik explained. Humor, on the other hand, is subjective.
“The first requirement in humor is the playframe,” she said. “It puts a real-life event in nonserious content and allows for an atypical psychological response. For example, we won’t find it comical if someone falls from a 10-story building in distress; it hinders laughter. If you see someone fall and they’re not hurt, you find it funny.”
A fully rounded sense of humor requires the combined efforts of the brain’s right and left frontal lobes, Petrik explained. Laughter is a form of audible speech that comes from the brain’s left hemisphere, responsible for literal interpretations of jokes. Humor comes from the brain’s right hemisphere, which alerts us to subtleties and connects inferences to help us understand a joke.
Research shows that male and female brains react differently to humor. Female brains like dry humor; males prefer more slapstick, physical and aggressive humor. While women are more likely to laugh at jokes at their own expense, men laugh at jokes at other people’s expense. Men also have less patience than women and want to get to the punchline quickly.
Laughter helps increase productivity
If you’re stuck on a creative project at work, get up, move around and laugh with your co-workers, advised Petrik. It will increase oxygen to the brain, get both hemispheres working at the same time, and cause you to be more productive. (She cautions that too much silliness at work may lead to not being taken seriously.)
Yet, laughter strengthens relationships and attracts others to us. Studies show that couples who laugh together, stay together longer, Petrik said. If you look at dating websites, a good sense of humor is among the top qualities people seek in a partner; it helps us respond well to others. In a conflict-resolution situation, laughter brings about an emotional high, allowing us to look at issues from a different point of view.
“If you’re engaged in an argument with a partner or friend and something funny happens, you stop and laugh,” Petrik said. “Try to return to the argument. It’s hard to do, because laughter shifts that perspective.”
Bring more laughter to your days
Laughter exercises, also referred to as laughter therapy and laughter yoga, use fake laughter to help participants breathe and stretch, clear out their lungs and change their perspective. Petrik showed a video of a laughter yoga class to show that fake laughing benefits us as well as organic laughter. During one exercise, participants pointed a finger at themselves and fake laughed. In another exercise, they pretended to look at their paycheck and fake laughed again. They all admitted to feeling happier afterward.
“Even smiling will change the chemistry of the brain,” Petrik said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
If your local park district doesn’t offer laughter classes, you can still intentionally reap the benefits of laughter:
- Search laughter exercises, laughter therapy or laughter yoga on YouTube and participate in a class virtually.
- Download the Dry Bar Comedy app and sign up for a free trial subscription to watch short clips of comedians telling wholesome, laugh-out-loud jokes appropriate for the whole family.
- Listen to a comedy podcast or watch your care recipient’s favorite situation comedy on TV and laugh together.
- Local libraries have extensive collections of classic TV shows available on DVD and streaming services–free with a library card.
With all the stresses involved in caregiving, why not find something to laugh about? Even if you can’t, fake it. You’ll still reap the benefits.