The Fun Way to Easily Improve Your Life, Backed by Research

12 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

You don’t laugh enough. Yes, humor can improve your life. Not too surprising, you say?

Here’s the problem: you treat humor like a nice thing that happens, oh, whenever. But scientific research is showing giggles, guffaws and jokes are far too important to be left to chance.

We’re gonna learn the best ways to use humor to make you happier, healthier, more successful at work and even to improve your relationships.

First, let’s learn the neuroscience of why we laugh. Why are funny things funny? What’s going on in your brain that makes you giggle so hard you snort?

What Is Humor?

Humor is your brain rewarding you for finding errors and inconsistencies in your thinking.

From Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind:

Humor occurs when a perception of the world suddenly corrects our mistaken preconception.

Your brain needs to encourage you to update your incorrect ideas about the world and, like giving a dog a treat, it rewards you with a burst of pleasure. Instead of a biscuit, you get a shot of dopamine.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

Mobbs saw that subjects’ brains became highly activated for all the cartoons, but one subset of structures responded solely for the funny ones — namely, the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala. What do those brain regions have in common? They’re key components of what scientists call the dopamine reward circuit, which is responsible for distributing dopamine throughout the brain. In response to unfunny jokes, we not only fail to laugh, we miss out on the joy.

And so it’s no surprise that those who have more horsepower to update those beliefs are funnier. Yup, research shows humor is a sign of intelligence:

The current study lends support to the prediction that effective humor production acts as an honest indicator of intelligence in humans.

(To learn how to be funny, click here.)

So laughs are the reward we get for improving our belief system. How can you use it to reduce stress, build grit and be happier all around?

Humor Makes You Happy

No surprise — yes, laughing makes you happier.

From The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People:

In studies of hundreds of adults, happiness was found to be related to humor. The ability to laugh, whether at life itself or at a good joke, is a source of life satisfaction. Indeed, those who enjoy silly humor are one-third more likely to feel happy.

Your brain really likes it when you correct those errors. In fact, when you’re stressed, you should be seeking out comedy like a bloodhound.

Meditation and calm music might seem like good ways to chill out but they pale in comparison to jokes. Watching comedy is three times as effective as relaxation when it comes to de-stressing.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

This emotional exercise view of humor also explains why watching comedies is sometimes more beneficial than meditating or listening to calming music. For example, simply viewing an episode of the sitcom Friends has been shown to reduce anxiety three times more effectively than sitting and resting.

And don’t just look for laughs when the stress is gone. You want to be joking through the pain. Humor can be a great way to develop that “grit” everyone keeps talking about.

What do the grittiest people imaginable have to say? When I interviewed Army Ranger Joe Asher he said this was the attitude that got him through his incredibly difficult training:

If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through.

Navy SEAL Platoon Commander James Waters told me the same thing about getting through his training:

You’ve got to have fun and be able to laugh; laugh at yourself and laugh at what you’re doing. My best friend and I laughed our way through BUD/S.

And the research backs this up. If you want to be resilient, laugh. It gets people through the toughest moments in life, including combat and severe illness.

From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:

Substantial evidence exists for the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism. Studies involving combat veterans (Hendin & Haas, 1984), cancer patients (Carver, 1993), and surgical patients (Culver et al., 2002) have found that when humor is used to reduce the threatening nature of stressful situations, it is associated with resilience and the capacity to tolerate stress (Martin, 2003).

(To learn the fun way to make your life awesome, click here.)

So more humor means happiness and less stress. But you need to be serious when you get to work, right? Wrong.

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Humor Improves Work

Research has shown that humor helps teams bond, increases the quantity and quality of communication, and builds trust.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

Researchers have developed a general view that effective humor can increase the quantity and quality of group communications. One reason for that is that humor has also been demonstrated to increase trust. In a widely cited study, Professor William Hampes examined the relationship between humor and trust among eighty-nine college undergraduates ranging in age from sixteen to fifty-four and found a significant correlation. The people who scored high on a test that measured sense of humor for social purposes, coping humor, and appreciated humor and humorous people were considered more trustworthy.

Want to be a better negotiator? Tell a joke.

From The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

In one study, people trying to bargain down the price of a landscape painting were willing to accept a higher cost if the person on the other side of the negotiating table cracked, “I’ll throw in my pet frog.”

And just watching bloopers before trying to solve a problem made people more creative.

From The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

Folks who first watched a funny blooper reel were more successful at solving the task… than those who exercised or watched a math video. And in a more recent MIT study on idea generation, improvisational comedians asked to brainstorm new products generated, on average 20 percent more ideas than professional product designers, and the improv comic’s ideas were rated 25 percent more creative than those of the pros.

Want to be a better leader? Harvard professor John Kotter shadowed 15 high-level executives. What did he find out about their meetings? They’re far from formal and serious affairs:

These discussions usually contain a considerable amount of joking and kidding and concern nonwork-related issues.

Want to give a presentation like a top-notch exec — but you’re not as organized as you’d like to be? No problem. Just throw in some good jokes and people won’t notice.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

…being funny helps hide flaws in our organization skills. Most of the time when we give speeches, we’re careful to organize our points in a logical and meaningful order. But studies have found that we can give those same speeches with points mixed at random, and as long as we also incorporate humor, viewers won’t notice.

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

So humor makes you happier and better at work. But how does it score in that category I like to call “helping you not die”?

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

Humor = Health

People who use humor to cope with life’s challenges have more robust immune systems and are 40% less likely to have a stroke or heart attack.

From 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

People who spontaneously use humor to cope with stress have especially healthy immune systems, are 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, experience less pain during dental surgery and live four and a half years longer than average.

Surgery patients who watched comedies asked for 25% less pain medication.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

…subjects who viewed funny movies experienced less self-reported pain than those who watched dramas. Specifically, they felt better about their postsurgical condition and requested 25 percent less medication than their peers.

And when you survey people who have lived past the age of 100, what do you find? “They considered laughter an important part of life…”

…when we assessed the personalities of these 243 centenarians, we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network…

Researchers have a prescription to improve your health that doesn’t involve medication: laugh for a minimum of 15 minutes a day.

From 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

On the basis of the results, the researchers recommended that people laugh for at least fifteen minutes each day.

(To learn the best way to motivate yourself to exercise, click here.)

So you can laugh your way to happiness, success at the office, and health. But what about romance?

Humor Improves Relationships

Humor makes you sexy. It ranked as the #2 most attractive quality.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

A 2007 study…found that sense of humor was the second most desired trait, behind only intelligence. Women ranked it first. For men it was number three, after intelligence and good looks.

(In fact, humor is so sexy research shows you can predict how many women a man has slept with by how funny he is.)

What’s interesting is that humor also correlates with intimacy, trust, dependability and kindness. Not too shabby.

From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

…people who rate highly on tests of intimacy also have a good sense of humor. The same goes for trust, dependability, and kindness.

And if you want a marriage that lasts more than 50 years, laugh.

From The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

…studies of happy marriages, especially those lasting more than a half century, find spouses often ascribe their marital bliss in part to laughing together.

Plain and simple: more laughing means less fighting.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships:

When both partners in a relationship thought the other had a good sense of humor, 67 percent less conflict was reported than in couples where neither thought the other had a good sense of humor.

But you’re going to argue at some point, right? Of course. But responsive partners who know the power of humor can actually laugh together while they’re disagreeing.

And when I spoke to the #1 relationship researcher, John Gottman, he said this is key because it helps keep the two of you calm. Here’s John:

If you turn toward bids at a high rate, you get a sense of humor during conflict. Humor is very powerful because it reduces physiological arousal during arguments and that’s been replicated in several studies.

Want a quick way to give your romantic relationship a booster shot? It’s simple: reminisce about the timesyou laughed together:

Results show preliminary support for the notion that reminiscing about laughter may have a more potent influence on relationship well being than reminiscing about other positive events.

(To learn how to be funny, click here.)

Okay, we learned a lot. Let’s round everything up and learn the simple way to put this to use and get more laughs in your life…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Sum Up

Here’s how humor can improve your life:

  • Humor makes you happy: Watching comedy is three times as effective at reducing stress than just relaxing.
  • Giggles make you more successful: Jokes build trust, improve negotiations, make you more creative — and help others ignore your missteps.
  • Humor improves health: Better immunity, fewer heart attacks, less pain and a longer life.
  • Laughs increase love: Don’t reminisce about that vacation. Recollect the time you two laughed so hard you cried.
  • If you don’t have time for more comedy, you’re not doomed. Just spend your free time hanging around with friends who have a good sense of humor.

    Not only will you laugh more because they tickle your funny bone, you’ll laugh more because you’re around others who are laughing.

    From Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why:

    As Ruch’s study demonstrated, humor ratings can be influenced simply by exposing subjects to laughter. Other studies have found that subjects laugh more and rate jokes as funnier when a nearby actor shares their laughter…

    Need a laugh right now? Here’s Louis CK talking about turning 40 (NSFW):

    In closing, why is childhood something most people remember so fondly? Maybe it’s because we laughed more then. Actually, a lot more.

    From The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

    Studies of five-year-olds have shown they laugh, on average, 7.7 times per hour, while the average American adult laughs just eighteen times a day.

    Want to be as happy as you were as a kid? It might be as simple as laughing more with friends.

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    This article originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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