Laughing is healthy because it stimulates endorphin. Real laughs are what it takes to trigger the chemical. You have more power over your laughter than you may think. Here are three things you can do it give yourself the gift of laughter.
1. Stock up on funny stuff
We stock up on healthy snacks to avoid yielding to junk food, and in the same way, you can stock up on comedy to avoid yielding to gloom. It may seem wrong for laughter to need advance preparation, but once a bad mood strikes, you are not motivated to shop for comedy. And even if you look, everything you find may seem “not funny.” So take time to gather funny stuff on a good day, so it will be ready on a bad day.
Store your humor in an easily accessible place so you’ll have it in times of need. Stock your phone with comedy before a medical treatment or a difficult challenge at work. Buy yourself tickets to a comedy performance to have something to look forward to after a trying time. You will help your brain shift its focus from negative to positive.
2. Prioritize your taste in humor
When I go to my local improv theater, I laugh very hard, so I want to share it with friends. But I’ve often found that friends don’t like it, and that can ruin it for me. And, truth be told, I don’t like many of the humorous movies and performances I’ve been invited to. So I’ve learned that humor is individual. If you want to laugh, you have to make time for what you like.
You don’t need to justify your taste. You don’t need to excuse your indulgence in your own sense of humor. We can accept our individuality and give ourselves permission to honor it. If you truly like to share entertainment, budget some sharing time that’s separate from your laugh time. Making space for whatever cracks you up will free you from resenting others for not sharing your taste. And it feels good!
A word of caution about bitter, angry humor is necessary. Like an addiction, it may feel good in the short run but leave you feeling worse in the long run. Experiment with humor that’s not angry. This can be hard to find! That’s why Rule #1 is so important: you have to invest time collecting it in advance.
3. Don’t hold back your laughs
Do you hold back your laughter because you think it looks dumb? Many people do. Maybe you think your teeth look bad or you don’t want to sound frivolous.
Once you start suppressing laughs, it becomes automatic and you don’t know you’re doing it. You can rewire this habit but it takes time and effort. Start by noticing other people’s laughs, and think positively about them.
If you notice that you’re being critical of other people’s laughs, make a conscious effort to find the joy and freedom they’re expressing. Once you can be positive about the laughs of others, your mirror neurons will help you be positive about your own laughter. It takes a lot of repetition to rewire a deep bodily impulse, so don’t give up.
Endorphin is the brain’s natural opioid
The word endorphin means “endogenous morphine.” Endorphin evolved to mask pain, not to make you feel good. When a gazelle is bitten by a predator, endorphin enables it to run to save its life. That’s not funny! The fact is that laughter jiggles deep “intrinsic” muscles that rarely get a work out, and that triggers a tiny bit of endorphin. A tiny bit is not a high like “runner’s high.” Our brain did not evolve to be high on endorphin all the time. It’s there for emergency only. Runners only get high if they run to the point of pain. That is not a healthy long-run strategy. We are better off being grateful for small drips of endorphin, knowing we can always trigger more safely with more laughs.
Laughter As a Prophylactic
Laughing can help prevent a negative spiral. Bad things can happen at any time. Your beloved may break up with you. Your employer may go bankrupt. Your health may fail. We need to be ready with a reliable but healthy way to feel good.
You may think it’s foolish to laugh at a time of emergency. But the protective value of laughter is clear when you understand the way we process bad news. Your brain releases cortisol when you perceive a potential threat. We’re often told that cortisol motivates animals to run for their lives, but before an animal runs, it scans for more information. When a gazelle smells a lion, it scans for detail so it knows which way to run. When your cortisol turns on, your brain scans for details about the threat. Your big brain is very good at finding evidence of threat when it looks.
Cortisol stays in your system for about an hour. In that time, everything you look at will seem bad because your brain is cued to look for threats. You risk triggering more cortisol, and another hour of scanning for threats. A cortisol spiral can result. You can protect yourself from spiraling by having a safe and handy way to trigger good feelings. Once a good feeling is triggered, your brain is cued to look for positives instead of just negatives. Laughter is a great tool for times of crisis!
Lots more on how to do this in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels