Laugh Your Ass Off!
New studies are revealing the surprising health benefits of busting a gut
Let's say your boss pops into your office, and instead of that third-quarter report on your screen, she spies Sarah Silverman spewing one of her infamously off-color jokes: "When God gives you AIDS — and God does give you AIDS, by the way — make LemonAIDS." Mortification would be the typical go-to response. But if you both knew that cracking up makes you smarter, more creative, and more productive, you'd tilt the screen her way, turn up the volume, and get your giggles on.
Laughter, it turns out, nearly rivals exercise when it comes to health and brain-boosting powers. For starters, a Loma Linda University study found that it raised levels of disease-fighting immunoglobulins by 14 percent. Another at UCLA discovered that kids could endure having their hands submerged in ice water 40 percent longer while watching comedies (find out more about new ways to manage pain on page 128). And a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore measured subjects' blood flow as they watched There's Something About Mary and concluded that laughter increases circulation about as much as a treadmill session. Need more reasons to go out and buy season two of The Office? Keep reading.
Your Brain on Borat
Beyond the physical perks, a few guffaws can sharpen your thinking. Ron Berk, Ph.D., a recently retired psychologist from Johns Hopkins Medical School, started using jokes and gags back in 1993 to combat his students' lectureinduced narcolepsy. He soon noticed that his one-liners did more than keep them awake; they caused a spike in their test scores. To prove it, he and a colleague divided 98 students in a graduate biostatistics class (yaaaawn...) into two groups. Each took the same 57-item exam, but one group's test had funny instructions. As the two researchers reported last October in the scientific journal Humor, the students who got a dose of silliness scored significantly higher on the exam.
The results of that experiment probably didn't surprise one school of brainiacs: positive psychologists. Unlike traditional psychologists, who focus on negative emotions such as fear and anger, these guys research desirable feelings like happiness and satisfaction. Until the past decade or so, scientists knew astonishingly little about the benefits of feeling good. In the late 1990s, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, came up with a theory: A positive state of mind — whether caused by humor, love, or contentment — broadens people's thinking and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
An experiment with penguins illustrates the point. In a 2005 study, Fredrickson showed 104 undergraduates a 2-minute video of waddling penguins that only a major scrooge could fail to find funny. An equal number of students watched an abstract video of, er, colored lines, which left them predictably unmoved. Then Fredrickson tested the students for big-picture thinking by showing them four small triangles arranged as a square or three small squares arranged as a triangle. Amused subjects were significantly more likely to focus on the overall pattern rather than the component shapes: They were better able to see the big picture, literally.
In a separate experiment, students were asked to watch the penguins and list up to 20 things they'd like to do at that moment (explore the Arctic, sip margaritas, lasso wild horses...). The people who had watched the goofy film thought of more things to do, which indicates more flexible and creative thinking.
How does humor help us think? Scientists are pretty sure it has to do with the way amusement stimulates the brain's reward center. In a landmark 2003 study at Stanford, researchers put subjects in MRI machines and showed them Bizarro cartoons. When they got a joke, a midbrain area known as the nucleus accumbens became active. The nucleus accumbens is part of a neural pathway that scientists call a reward circuit, the same one that's triggered when we eat chocolate or have sex. There's evidence that this circuit pumps out dopamine, a brain-signaling chemical that stimulates the frontal lobe — the place where we do most of our mental heavy lifting. So humor and other positive feelings effectively fuel our noodle.
Be Amused, Be Very Amused
Obviously, people totally lacking in humor (Dick Cheney comes to mind) aren't going to be the life of the party. But it's amazing what a little kidding can do for your social life. Consider that jelly-bellied Jack Black scores leading roles opposite the likes of Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet or that beady-eyed Vince Vaughn got a shot at Jennifer Aniston. Making chicks laugh can transform so-so guys into studs — and we have more than celeb examples to back that up. Last year, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario had more than 200 college students examine photos of members of the opposite sex accompanied by either funny or bland quotes. Women rated the funny men as more attractive. But while guys said they preferred a woman with a good sense of humor, they didn't actually find the funny females foxier. These egomaniacs did, however, rate women who found them funny as more attractive.
Off the meet market, goofing around can help you warm up to a new bud. In 2000, Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook, separated 96 undergraduates into same-sex pairs and had one teach the other dance moves. In half of the pairs, the "teacher" held a straw in her teeth, which garbled her speech, and the "student" was blindfolded. Sounds more like S&M than science, but never mind that. The shenanigans elicited plenty of giggles, and the pairs who laughed together reported feeling closer afterward than those who took the exercise seriously.
According to Aron, humor softens us up by distracting us from the anxiety we feel when meeting someone new and by creating the sensation of something exciting, which makes the experience more pleasurable. Experts also believe that people who can see the funny side of a situation have a greater level of "emotional intelligence" — the ability to manage their own emotions and accurately read another person's. In a 2006 study, Rod Martin, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario and president of the International Society for Humor Studies, gave students questionnaires to measure their sense of humor, then had them analyze the emotions of faces on a computer screen. The upshot: People who joke around more often tend to read other people better. Not surprising when you consider that humor usually involves addressing touchy subjects in a way that's provocative but not upsetting, e.g., making LemonAIDS.
Silly skills score points at work too. Fabio Sala, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist at Boston University, analyzed audiotapes of 20 male executives. The execs rated "outstanding" by their staff used humor — by either cracking jokes or cracking up — more than twice as often as those rated "average."
Whether at home, on the dating scene, or in the office, humor works kind of like a couple of martinis — only better. It greases the social wheels by reducing stress and putting people at ease. And luckily, you don't have to be as funny as Sarah Silverman to reap the benefits. All you have to do is laugh.
Last updated: December 1, 2007 Issue date: March 2007
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