Is there anything more contagious than…laughter? Yet, it’s been observed that toddlers laugh more than 300 times a day, while the average adult only laughs a handful of times each day. What’s happened to our sense of humor? Has the anger industry, the media, for decades stirring the worst news and views, killed our joy?
Health professionals have long known that life is better when you’re laughing. Even before modern medical science proclaimed that laughter is good medicine, Proverbs 17:22 taught us that “A happy heart is like a good medicine and a cheerful mind works healing”. The late comedienne Phyllis Diller noted: “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.” So why aren’t we laughing more, and enjoying a healthy sense of humor?
When I ask this question of my clients, many have said, “Michael, I’ve forgotten how to laugh, it’s been so long since I’ve had any sense of humour”. Just what’s happened to our ability to see the good, the humorous and the positive in life?
The benefits of positive emotions
A sizeable number of scientific studies have detailed how negative emotions harm the body. We know from research that certain traits promote and advance the ability to avoid or properly manage heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and depression. Happiness is good for your health! Emotional vitality is good for your health! Optimism is good for your health! A supportive network of family and friends is good for your health! Being able to control you emotions and resiliently respond to difficulties and challenges in life free of anger is good for your health!
Research also teaches us that people who feel positively about aging have on average 7.5 more years of life compared to those who are negative and unhappy about aging. Happiness even adds years to your life!
Laura Kubzansky, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard School of Public Health, noted, “For physical health, it’s not so much happiness per se, but this ability to regulate and have a sense of purpose and meaning.” Her research has demonstrated the connection between positive psychological attributes and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease.
It’s time to promote laughter and a positive sense of humor – IF we want to reduce heart disease, find a more natural way to diminish pain, lower blood pressure, strengthen our immune system, increase our energy level, improve our breathing, lose weight, find an antidote to conflict, increase our feel good endorphins while improving our mood, sleep better, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote a more youthful appearance. That’s quite a list, right?
Sure you can eat kale, seafood, nuts, beans and eggs, all purported to boost your mood. But it’ll take more than this banquet to extend the happiness-health link. Long ago, when I was in clinical practice, I began counselling my patients that you can’t feel depressed, anxious or angry…while you are laughing.
I can’t think of any reason NOT to laugh. It really is good medicine. Laughter, being happier, feeling optimistic, self-confident and filled with gratitude, expressing hopefulness, acting compassionate and empathic toward yourself and others, having a purpose and seeing meaning in life – all comprise happiness. Your sense of humor can be your greatest health asset. What’s not often understood is that you don’t have to be funny to have a sense of humor, you just have to learn to see the lighter side of things and indeed they are always – always – there.
But there is a difference between “being funny,” and “having a sense of humor.” I can, and often do, tell funny stories that frequently garner lots of laughs. I also offer well-timed appropriate jokes and puns, and am known to be funny. That’s being funny. I also laugh at the foolishness I see in life, daily or more frequently, and take most things, well, honestly, not very seriously. That’s having a sense of humor. If I had to choose which is more important in the happiness-health connection, I’d promote having a sense of humor, having fun, more than being funny. But how can you grow happier?
The S.M.I.L.E. Model for Happiness
Here are 5 steps that will help you increase your happiness levels, which I call the S.M.I.L.E. Model for Happiness:
S – Savor
If you want to turbo-fuel your optimism, just linger, mindfully focus on and prolong your enjoyment of whatever it is that you are doing for just a moment or two whether it’s in the past, the future or the present. By the way, be sure to savor your personal dreams and goals. How many more studies do you really need to confirm that being hopeful with an optimistic and meaningful sense of purpose in life, one that you savor and enjoy fully, will leave you happier?
M – Me
Recent research by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., has found that self-compassion is linked to positivity, happiness, and health. We need “me” time for our happiness to unwind, allow time for self-discovery, reboot our brains, improve our focus and promote our relationships. How can you get more “me” time? Close your office door if you have one, wake up a bit earlier and savor the quiet time alone, unplug those devices or go for a walk during the workday.
I – Interact
Spending time with others expressing kindness and generosity, doing good deeds for others, can reduce stress, diminish anger, promote social connections and increase happiness. Water cooler or Starbucks time with others can surely leave you feeling better – just stay away from those who drag and weigh you down. Find the lifters and thrusters in life and fill your calendar with them. Give more of yourself and interact more with others and your life satisfaction will increase, and with it, your health. Simply expressing gratitude to others can increase happiness by 25% according to Bob Emmons, Psychology Professor at the University of California, Davis. He says that, “A few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more”.
L – Listen
Whether you enjoy listening to birds chirping in your neighbourhood, to the wonderfully joyful noise of your children or grandchildren playing, to beautifully played music that fits your taste and mood, or the chit chat of a loved one or friend, these can all promote your wellbeing, lift your spirits and happiness and increase your health as well.
E – Empathize
Do you really care about others? Are you able to put yourself in their shoes? Can you relate with others free of judgment? The more you can and do, the happier you’ll feel.
It appears that one overall sure-fire way to grow happiness, and thereby promote health, is to keep your focus on other people, not things, and certainly not the things that others have that you don’t but believe you should. In fact, the less you ‘should’ on yourself, others, and life in general, the more you accept life, the happier you’ll be.
You can find more advice on optimal living in Dr. Michael Mantell’s book Don’t sweat the small stuff.