Laughter is the best medicine, says the age-old proverb we’re all familiar with. But, given the fact that humour is highly subjective, not all types of humour can generate laughter in everybody. So, is laughter really a medicine for all, especially for women? Let’s find out.
The first thing you need to know is how humour and laughter are linked. To put it simply, humour is the stimulus that evokes laughter, which is a physical reaction. This physical reaction is characterized by a repetitive vocal sound, certain facial expressions (yes, more than a smile may be involved in laughter), and the contraction of various muscle groups across the body. Humour, therefore, leads to laughter, which in turn engages your entire body and mind.
Health benefits of humour and laughterThe primary reason why humour and laughter are considered to be good for your health is because it immediately alleviates stress. But this apart, there are a number of health benefits of laughter, as studies have shown over the decades. The following are the key health benefits of humour and laughter you should know about.
Physical benefitsHere’s what happens when you laugh: your diaphragm (a major muscle used in respiration) gets plenty of exercise, stimulates your lungs and oxygenates your entire body. Loud laughter also relaxes your entire body, which is why laughter therapy and yoga are recommended, and are gaining in popularity these days. As all the muscles in your body start relaxing, laughter can also reduce pain and symptoms of discomfort, even if only momentarily. This occurs because laughter, like other forms of exercise, can release endorphins—which are natural painkillers. At the same time, studies also suggest that laughter is basically a type of aerobic exercise, and, can improve your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, thereby keeping your heart healthy as well.
Immunological benefitsStudies show that people who laugh regularly tend to have better immune systems than those who don’t. This is because laughter promotes the secretion of many neuropeptides and hormones that play a key role in the immune function of the body. When you laugh, your body secretes endorphins and dopamine. While the former reduces inflammation and improves your pain threshold, the latter lowers stress and promotes the activity of key cells like T cells (also known as white blood cells) and natural killer (NK) cells, both of which play a huge role in keeping all sorts of diseases and infections at bay.
Psychological benefitsThere’s good reason why therapists across the world have adopted laughter therapy to treat patients with a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders and depression. A 2016 study published in the Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine, titled Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health, explains that laughter regulates many hormones that are associated with mood and mental health. The study explains that laughter decreases the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), epinephrine or adrenaline, thereby reducing stress in the body. At the same time, laughter improves serotonin, dopamine and endorphin levels, alleviating stress, anxiety and a low mood. It’s due to these benefits—and the fact that laughter therapy is free, non-pharmacological, and non-invasive—that laughter is indeed believed to be a great medicine for mental health problems.
Social benefitsYou might wonder how the social benefits of laughter can help your health in any way, but there is indeed a crucial link that many miss out here. A study published in 2019 in the journal PLOS One, titled Health Risks Associated with Social Isolation in General and in Young, Middle and Old Age, reveals that those who are lonely or isolated socially tend to have poor health conditions and unhealthy behavious, especially with increasing age. People living in social isolation may have increased risks of physical inactivity, poor diet, musculoskeletal disorders and even depression. So, keeping isolation at bay and staying socially active is good for your health. Guess what helps reduce isolation and improve bonds of trust and reliability among people? Good humour and incredible laughter.
Gender differences in humourBut, despite all these health benefits, it’s important to remember that not all types of humour generate laughter in everybody. In fact, recent studies—even ones dating back to the early 2000s—show that reception and reaction to humour can vary greatly among genders. A study published in 2005 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was among the first to show that humour activates different parts of the brain in men and women.
The study, which measured neural activation through brain imaging while participants watched cartoons, showed that while men and women share much of the same humour-response system, some brain regions were activated more among the women. This higher activation was focused in the prefrontal cortex (which indicates that women used more of their semantic knowledge while processing the language and meaning of the cartoons), and the nucleus accumbens (the reward centre of the brain). In fact, the funnier the cartoons, the more intensely activated the women’s reward centres became.
However, this does not mean that women are easily gratified by just any kind of humour. A 2017 study in the journal Psychology and Health, titled Frightfully funny: Combining threat and humour in health messages for men and women, suggests that women do not respond well to humour that disguises a threat. Another study, published in Current Psychology in 2020, makes this difference clearer still. It suggests that while both men and women enjoy sexual humour and humour that targets the opposite sex, women respond poorly to aggressive or sexist humour.
Humour and women’s health: What works and what doesn’tSo, while humour and laughter have plenty of benefits, their actual advantage can only be taken under the right circumstances, depending on your gender. For women, aggressive, threatening and sexist humour cannot be healthy—not just because studies say so, but also because these types of humour are more likely to generate fear, anger, a flight-or-fight response, and loss of self-esteem. Instead of benefitting them, these types of humour can do a lot of harm to a woman’s mental and physical health, even in the long term.
On the other hand, witty humour that is pleasant and generates laughter can be extremely rewarding for women, as their prefrontal cortex and reward centre is more likely to be activated by them. With this context in mind, what sort of humour and jokes do you think is best-suited for women? Let us know in the comments below!