When was the last time you laughed so hard your stomach ached? Or your eyes streamed with tears because you giggled uncontrollably? If you have to stop and think about it, it's been way too long, and you need to schedule a laugh session into your calendar stat.
Aside from the obvious feel-good effect, a new study proves laughter really is the best medicine, and a little goes a long way. It can protect against heart disease, burn calories, and lowers cortisol levels, aka "stress hormones."
So how can we bring a little mirth back into our lives and reap the health benefits? Well, we asked someone who laughs for a living, comedian and actress Ashton Swinford, who has worked with comedic icon Scott Aukerman, starred alongside Zooey Deschanel in her hit TV show New Girl, and performs regular standup at The Comedy Store. We sat down with Swinford to discuss the power of laughter, how you can train yourself to laugh, why we all need a "laugh date," and her tips for stressing less and laughing more.
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MyDomaine: How does the simple human act of laughing change people's energy?
Ashton Swinford: Laugher is an extremely powerful and transformational force. Anyone who's ever had to fake a laugh knows a real belly laugh is something spontaneous from deep within. It snorts, drools, hollers, and can make you cry, your face hurt from smiling, and gives you the best ab workout of your life—all uncontrollably. As a subconscious vibration released from the root of the soul, a good laugh can brighten your mood, unlock a taboo subject, or instantly connect you to anyone within earshot.
Laughter is such a gift, and one that demands to be shared.
As any comic will tell you, an audience's mood can turn on a dime. If you've ever been to a dinner party and someone starts an awkward or inappropriate story, or has a drawn out delivery (the worst), the mood changes instantly.
On the other hand, the greatest hosts (and comics) are truly masters of moments, who understand timing, delivery, and their audience so well that they can connect to their most sacred truths. That's all comedy is, truth, packaged in a way that promotes laughter and lightheartedness, which can transform an entire room with positivity, connectedness, understanding, and the shared experience of being human.
A good joke can show you a new perspective, and can be a catalyst of change and expanded consciousness—and it all starts with a simple funny thought.
MD: Can laughter have a positive impact on our health?
AS: A good laugh is a great de-stresser. Not only does it take the focus off the negative, it can shift your perspective by showing you it's not really that bad, you're not alone, and we're only human. Plus no one gets out alive, so you might as well enjoy it while you're here. According to Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation it can release endorphins, and "may temporarily relive pain."
I think the benefits truly come from having a healthy sense of humor, and knowing when to laugh it off as opposed to letting it stress you out. It's hard to look at the scientific studies of laughter because it's difficult to separate those with a good sense of humor versus those who don't.
Obviously those who spend more time looking on the bright side, sharing laughter, and being positive are naturally going to have a better outlook on life and probably less stress and lower blood pressure.
But psychologist and laugh therapist Steve Wilson thinks laughter is the best medicine. "I believe that if people can get more laughter in their lives, they are a lot better off," he says. "They might be healthier, too."
MD: Do you think you can you train yourself to laugh during stressful situations?
AS: I don't know if it would be appropriate to laugh during certain times (laughing at a funeral might be awkward), but I think you can train yourself to take a step back from a stressful situation, look at the problem as a whole and try to see the silliness of it all.
You don't want to avoid dealing with the issues completely, but changing your perspective on it and how it has to affect your life in the moment is invaluable. If there is nothing you can do to change it, why stress? Find a funny meme about it. Group text it to your friends. Feeling adventurous? Write a joke about it and try it at your local comedy open mic.
The catharsis of making light of the dark helps more than just you. Plus, I'm a true believer in the power of positivity, so I think you're always better off to laugh it off.
MD: If laughter can reduce or relieve stress, how can we learn to laugh on command?
AS: I can't even tell you how many times I've had to fake laugh for a commercial, fake have fun, or do the bite and smile (so cheesy). It's pretty ridiculous. But hey, I'll take that any day over filming a scene where I have to watch my mother die, because I feel a whole lot better hamming it up than having to force cry for 20 minutes.
Laughing on command is definitely an art form. The more dinner parties and work functions you have under your belt, the more practice you'll have. My favorite is the good old sympathy laugh, which is really just finding something about the person that is hilarious.
Relieving the conflict or intensity of the situation by letting out a laugh will make everyone more at ease. If you need to make yourself laugh, think of the person farting uncontrollably. Sometimes I try to remember a funny scene from a movie, or my life really, and there’s plenty of those.
MD: What’s the difference between a full-hearted laugh and something that's just choked up in our throats?
AS: I think the main difference between a full belly laugh and a giggle is simply truth. How intelligent is the joke? How true is it to everyone? Something can be kind of funny, but it's only really funny if it's really true. Jokes packed with truth have more impact, laughter, and catharsis for those who hear it, so I tend to think they're much better and more highly regarded in the industry. Everyone remembers that one joke they can't “unhear," the one they think of every time they’re in a similar situation.
MD: How can we quash the inner killjoy that tells us not to laugh because we won't look cool in front of others?
AS: I think people appreciate and remember us more when we’re being ourselves, not when we’re trying to dull a part just to fit some social norm. It's not the 1950s anymore. Looking cool is about being comfortable in your own skin, and people are drawn to those who are smiling, laughing, having a good time, and are confident in themselves. I say embrace your inner weirdo; maybe not in a client meeting, though. If you need to, just excuse yourself to a place where you can be alone and do some breathing exercises to recenter and reinvigorate your energy.
MD: Do you recommend going on a "laugh date” with friends?
AS: Friends are the best for a good laugh. You feel more comfortable when there's someone to laugh with and share all your inside jokes. Definitely, make time for a laugh date. See an improv show or standup comedy together, even a funny movie. Save some time post-laugh date for the two of you to hang out and find the funny in your own lives. Lay down some rules to keep it positive and if anyone steers the conversation in a negative or self-bashing direction, gently steer it back into a more positive one.
It'll be good fuel for the soul.
MD: Do you recommend a laugh coach or laugh workshops?
AS: I think seeing a good improv team or standup show would do the trick and cost you less money. We all know we should laugh, but talking about needing to laugh and actually doing it are two separate things. Do something that makes you laugh. Throw a party and invite a bunch of your friends over to play silly games like Cards Against Humanity, fill up a piñata with mini booze bottles, or make a truth-or-dare Jenga. Get creative!
MD: How does our physiology impact our level of happiness?
AS: Physiology is super important to our happiness. If we hurt it's hard to laugh, but also if the energy is stuck in certain parts of our body we can't fully utilize it. Pay special attention to your posture. Your posture tells the world how you want to be treated, so be mindful of how you're coming across. Stay active. Do yoga and articulate your body daily to get your blood pumping and the energy flowing. Hang upside down. Eating healthy and drinking plenty of water also has a huge impact on our happiness, so treat yourself right.
MD: What are your top tips to stress less and laugh more?
AS: Here are some I personally use and recommend:
1. Think Funny
AS: Here are some I personally use and recommend:
1. Think Funny
Let your thoughts roam into silly scenarios and what ifs. I also like to people-watch and then make up characters and scenarios for them. Go off script, and say the unexpected. Let yourself laugh out loud at the funny thoughts in your head, then share it. There’s every chance that if you find it funny, someone else will, too. Write it down so you can develop it and share it later.
2. Be Positive
Negativity is like poison. Some people just need to spew it to make other people feel as bad as they do. Don't participate! Friends don't let friends stay negative. Discourage talking about yourself or others negatively. Focus on the positive. Try to steer the conversations into a positive direction, and if all else fails, just walk away.
3. Rise Above
Take a step back from a stressful situation and don't let it get to you. As Robyn Lee says, "We are not our emotions, we are the being that watches the weather of our emotions pass over us.” It's up to us to choose how we want to feel now. You are fabulous no matter what happens to you. It's up to you how you want to react. Choose to be happy.
4. Play all Day
Remember when you were a child and everything was a game? What happened to that? Make fun, be silly, release reservations. You'll always find someone who wants to be your partner in crime. Got a group? Have a costume party, play games, invent them, or reenact silly ideas from the internet. Memories like that will last forever.
5. Get Out of Your Head
Sometimes our thoughts are our own worst enemy. Get out of the house, grab a friend, go see an improv or standup show, ride a mechanical bull, take a brand new dance class, or start a drunken kickball league. You'll be laughing in no time.
6. Share the Laughs
Need a good belly laugh? Have a "laugh date" with your girlfriends and see an Ashton Swinford comedy show—giggles guaranteed.
Is laughter the best medicine for relieving stress? What are your personal stress-busting remedies? Share them with us.