As you scroll through family photos to lift your spirits, images of your little grandson laughing instantly make you smile. I wish I still laughed like that, you think. If the giggles are scarce in your life, you’re not alone: We stop laughing on a daily basis around the age of 23. And that laughter drought continues until we’re 70, when the golden years give us our smile back. But there’s no need to wait for that milestone birthday: There are easy laughter boosting tricks to bring stress-melting humor into your life at any age.
“Humor is highly correlated with resilience,” says researcher Janet M. Gibson, PhD. Indeed, two key qualities associated with a keen funny bone may be the best antidotes to life’s challenges: empathy and wisdom. “In one of my favorite studies, folks were asked to read cartoons of talking animals,” Gibson says. “People who were organ donors liked the cartoons more than those who weren’t.”
That’s partly because the same empathy needed to be a donor is also at the heart of a healthy sense of humor. “To appreciate the cartoons, folks had to see the animals as humans,” Gibson explains. “Humor helps us see things from a different point of view. In fact, we use the same mental resources to ‘get a joke’ as we do to make wise decisions.”
Though what makes us laugh is subjective, one thing is universal: It takes just 80 milliseconds for your brain to process information, and therefore, 80 milliseconds to process humor and feel better. Read on for delightful ways to reap the downright medicinal power of a good giggle.
Revitalize with a meme when you’re struggling with burnout.
Between taking care of your aging parents and juggling work, you’re exhausted. When we’re mentally drained, we don’t often think of humor as a balm, yet it’s shown to cut the risk of burnout nearly in half.
After a hard day, consider unwinding with a meme, encourages Gibson, revealing that looking at one is shown to slash stress levels in mere seconds. “At the beginning of the pandemic, memes like the Mona Lisa with messy hair (she couldn’t get to the salon after all!) went viral because coping humor is a natural response to trauma,” she says. “And people with the most stressful jobs, like morticians, who share jokes with each other, experience far less burnout.”
That’s because the same brain pathways that process humor also boost energy and release endorphins. When your batteries are low, consider Googling, say, “work stress humor.” “A brief break like this replenishes your brain, and the more that workers use humor, the more productive they tend to be.”
Lean on self-enhancing humor when you’re reeling from a setback.
After a friend is chosen to head a volunteer program that you also applied for, you make a self-deprecating joke to blunt your disappointment. Though self-defeating humor is common, it’s linked with higher levels of anxiety.
If you tend to put yourself down for a laugh, tap “self-enhancing humor.” While self-defeating jokes are associated with lower self-esteem, self-enhancing humor is correlated with optimism and resilience.
“We can begin to shift to a more positive humor style by making fun of small external stressors,” says Gibson. “If, say, your computer freezes, ask yourself, Is there a way to make light of this? You could say something like, ‘Computers belong in the North Pole because they’re always freezing!’ The more we step back and observe situations to see what might be amusing about them, the more willing we are to keep problem-solving until we succeed.”
Stroll down laughter lane when feeling a bit lonely.
When your sister is forced to cancel a lunch date because of a family obligation, you can’t help but feel more than a bit lonely. No one makes you smile like your sister, after all, and you miss the belly laughs that only come from your closest and oldest bonds.
The fastest route to feeling happy yourself is to bring others joy. Whether that means sharing a funny story or texting a joke to a friend, making folks smile makes us instantly feel closer to them.
You can also get that lift simply by reminiscing: Just thinking back on times when you laughed with a friend or loved one is shown to make you feel more connected to them than if you had simply recalled a joyful memory without laughter.
That’s partly because laughter elicits both an emotional and physical response. It’s emblazoned on our brains and bodies more profoundly, deepening bonds. Just as the giggles are contagious, so are the connections we make, creating a ripple effect of feel-good emotions.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.