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Can Humor Alter Your Brain Chemistry?

“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Do you know why everyone isn’t in a mental hospital? Because there isn’t enough room. Philosophers have long observed a dearth of happiness among humanity. Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” John Stuart Mill observed, “Unquestionably, it is possible to do without happiness; it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of mankind.”

Abd ar-Rahman III, who reigned as the most powerful prince of Iberia for half a century, had this to say about happiness:

I have now reigned about fifty years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amounted to fourteen.

According to the most recent statistics, one out of every six adults will have depression at some time in their life1. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that antidepressants are the third most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.2 Where the natural world has failed to provide for our happiness needs, we have turned to man-made chemical assistance. However, humor offers an alternative means of attaining happiness, or at least relief from our misery, for far less money and with fewer side effects than antidepressants.

Depression is caused by neurochemical reactions within the brain. Whether the original source of those neurochemical reactions is a traumatic event, long-term poverty, job loss, the break-up of a relationship or any other painful event(s), the illness itself takes form as a result of interactions that occur within and between different brain structures and neurotransmitters.

It is therefore reasonable to expect that depression can potentially be reversed using the sufferer’s own self-induced neurochemical reactions. And humor can be a means of inducing those reactions.

Neuroscientist Elisabeth Perreau-Linck of the University of Montreal carried out a study in which she confirmed that we are capable of altering our own brain chemistry. Perreau-Linck had professional actors self-induce a state of happiness or sadness and used a PET scan to measure the serotonin synthesis capacity (SSC) of their brains. SSC is an indicator of how efficiently the brain makes serotonin from its chemical precursor, tryptophan. The cortex and deeper brain regions showed significant differences in SSC activity for those actors who self-induced happiness and those who self-induced sadness.

“We found that healthy individuals are capable of consciously and voluntarily modulating SSC by transiently altering their emotional state,” said Perreau-Linck. “In essence, people have the capacity to affect the electrochemical dynamics of their brains by changing the nature of their mind process. This is a kind of ‘positive emotion therapy’ that anyone can use to modify chemical functioning of the brain.”3

Perreau-Linck’s findings support the use of humor to intentionally alter our own brain chemistry and combat depression. It is within our power to control how we respond to the inevitable adversity and struggles we encounter in life. Although some pain and suffering is unavoidable, we do not have to endlessly dwell on it and languish in it and make a home there.

The ability to overcome and rise above our suffering, even while deep in its midst, is within all of us. But doing so requires understanding that we are constantly being affected by what we give our attention to in ways that are completely outside our conscious awareness.

Making a deliberate effort to shift attention from the sad to the humorous could alter your brain chemistry and all of the subsequent unconscious effects your environment has upon you. Exposing yourself to humor by watching funny movies, going to comedy shows or reading humorous books could retrain your brain.

Reading any of the following books is a great way to begin using humor to deflate sadness, gain new perspective and self-induce more healthy neurochemical reactions in your brain — all with no ill side effects:

My Depression: A Picture Book, by Elizabeth Swados

Laughter Therapy: How to Laugh About Everything in Your Life That Isn’t Really Funny, by Annette Goodheart, M.F.T., Ph.D.

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road: Humorous Views on Love, Lust & Lawn Care, by Diana Estill

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

How Can You NOT Laugh at a Time Like This?: Reclaim Your Health with Humor, Creativity and Grit, by Carla Ulbrich

Can Humor Alter Your Brain Chemistry?

Footnotes:

  1. Mental health conditions: Depression and anxiety [fact sheet]. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/depression-anxiety.html []
  2. NCHS Dataline. (2012). Public Health Reports, 127(2). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268810/ []
  3. E. Perreau-Linck, et al., “Serotonin Metabolism During Self-Induced Sadness and Happiness in Professional Actors,” program 669.3 presented at the 34th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, San Diego, Calif., October 23-27, 2004. []


Nichole Force, M.A.

Nichole Force is the author of Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield & Psychological Salve. She has a Master's Degree in Psychology from Loyola Marymount University, studied improvisational comedy at The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles and sketch comedy at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Hollywood. She is a researcher and writer on humor’s role in society and psychology.


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APA Reference
Force, N. (2018). Can Humor Alter Your Brain Chemistry?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/can-humor-alter-your-brain-chemistry/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Dec 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Dec 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.