Why watching comedies is 'important medicine'
Psychologists dive deep into how watching comedy affects our brain, health and quality of life.
Are comedies good for us? How does watching a comedy affect our mental and physical health?
For answers, we turn to psychologists and experts in the media, health and wellness, and psychotherapy fields.
A complex visceral response
Because there are a lot of different types of humour — from wordplay and self-deprecation to slapstick and dark humour — the way comedies and humour register in our brain can vary, making the neuronal activity in response to it very complex, explains media psychologist Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in California as well as faculty in the media psychology program at Fielding Graduate University.
She says that multiple brain regions, including both cognitive and affective components, are involved in identifying the social disconnect that makes something funny.
"Cognition is necessary to 'get' the joke, and emotion is involved in enjoying humour and producing the visceral responses — such as smiling or laughter."
Different regions of the brain are activated depending on the type of humour it's processing. "For example, the frontal lobe, to process the information; the areas that draw on learned experience and direct motor activities, such as laughter; and the emotional center to evaluate pleasure and trigger the reward that comes from the punchline."
While an absurdist Kids in the Hall sketch might light up different circuits in the brain.
"Research, however, has been unable to definitely chart these neural pathways," adds Dr. Rutledge.
The effects on mental and physical health
The mechanics of our brains are beyond intriguing but can watching comedies like Schitt's Creek, Workin' Moms or Kim's Convenience be that special mental or physical remedy? Is laughter really the best medicine?
"It's an important medicine," she says. "The reality is that we know if we're getting clinical depression or anxiety or insomnia, we need other kinds of treatments. So, laughter alone isn't going to solve it but it is one of the ones that is the most accessible to us on a day-to-day basis."
"What we know is that comedy and uplifting content really do have a lot of positive impacts on our emotional health and also our physiology."
If we look at adaptive coping, she continues, through watching comedy we can keep perspective, add some lightness and have that air of gratitude because it can poke light at something and instill a positive emotion.
Dr. Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY, University at Buffalo, also agrees that comedy lightens the mood and can provide a space where the worries we have and everything that is going on around us in this world don't exist.
Providing further details, Dr. Rutledge explains: "Humour, when it's actually funny, has social and physical benefits: laughter releases neurotransmitters responsible for your happiness, such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins."
"The release of these chemicals in response to humour decreases stress, diminishes pain and in the process strengthens the immune system."
Dr. Samra agrees saying that just the physical act of smiling leads to the release of those exact positive feel good hormones in our brains which she calls the "natural antidepressants."
We get better sleep, we get tension release.- Dr. Joti Samra
ScienceDaily reported that in a 2008 study published by the American Physiological Society researchers found that even the mere anticipation of laughter lowered the levels of three stress hormones. Cortisol (the stress hormone), epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and dopac (brain chemical which helps produce epinephrine) were reduced by 39, 70 and 38 percent respectively.
This in turn creates a relaxed environment for both the mind and the body, eliminating negative emotions and changing our brain activity toward gamma frequency which also increases memory recall.
In light of that, may we suggest a natural relaxer like Baroness von Sketch Show!?
Or a memory enhancer like Schitt's Creek!?
The use of humour can enable people to not only decrease negative emotion but distance themselves from adversity and hardship, says Dr. Rutledge, adding: "If you consider that positive emotions fuel optimism, efficacy and resilience, then it makes sense that humour can contribute to overcoming challenges."
Positive emotions have also been shown to increase creativity and lower blood pressure.- Dr. Rutledge
A few studies corroborate that theory, including a 2017 study in the Journal of Dental and Medical Research, where humour therapy was performed on 40 patients undergoing hemodialysis (treatment for advanced kidney failure).
The study, on patients who listened to 30 minutes of comic shows twice a week over an eight-week period, concluded that humour therapy can in fact reduce blood pressure in hemodialysis patients. Hint hint: Baroness von Sketch Show episodes are approximately that length.
Dr. Gabriel expands on it and says: "Mental health and physical health are very tied into one another."
If we can feel more relaxed and less stressed, our bodies will be better at fighting disease.- Dr. Shira Gabriel
For example, during laughter, the amount of our T-cells and B-cells dramatically increases. This is important because the sole purpose of these cells is to find and destroy viruses and tumours in our bodies.
The purpose of humour is enjoyment and positive emotions, says Dr. Rutledge, however, positive emotions vary from hedonistic responses, such as happy surprise, to more meaning-based responses that might trigger self-reflection and feelings of social validation.
Humour also plays a big role in social communication and the most complex type of humour requires the ability to process social/emotional content, says Dr. Rutledge, relying, in part, on our ability to mentalize or understand the mental states of others.
Just like empathy (an ability to understand the emotional state or mood of others) she says that these are essential skills for successful interpersonal relationships.
'You don't want to become a slug in front of a TV'
Though there seems to be a consensus around the point that there is no such thing as too much laughter, the psychologists all agree that the laughter best be matched to the situation, adding that we have to be intentional when watching any type of content, including comedy.
When we think about negative effects, Dr. Samra says that if we're watching anything for an extended period of time without intention or start to ignore the important things in life — such as spending time with family, and physical activity or doing simple chores like cleaning the house — that becomes avoidance which, of course, is a big problem.
Eating extensively while watching can also easily occur which can be detrimental to health, as it can lead to obesity, so physical activity on a regular basis is important.
Dark comedy during difficult times
"There's so much heaviness around us that I think it is important for us to be making sure that we're balancing out what we're consuming with comedy, that which naturally and intrinsically creates that positive state," says Dr. Samra.
Dr. Rutledge adds that the potential to see humour in life, or having a sense of humour, can be an important way to regulate emotion.
"Humour is a coping mechanism that allows us to gain perspective and take some control. In this sense, humour reframes experience so we can see something in a new way," adding that watching comedies can provide some safety and distance from difficult things, or reinforce the fact that we are not alone facing not just daily foibles but major issues and life events.
"When we think of being exposed to something that is out of our control, unpredictable, non-sensical, whether it's severe crimes that happen, murder or now with COVID-19, we know that dark humour can have a positive effect," add Dr. Samra.
Dark humor about topics such as death, illness, depression or tragedy, allows people to cope with difficulties.- Dr. Rutledge
"I think it can be comforting to make light of the very things that worry us, adds Dr. Gabriel. "It can make those things seem less scary and remind us that we are not alone."
This is why we see memes like this one.
Basically, we laugh at things that stress us out and also try to make the best out of a bad situation.
"Laughing during uncomfortable and tragic events, whether seen on screen or in real life, is a stress response and a defence mechanism," says Dr. Samra.
"When something happens that our brain has not yet caught up to understanding, we go into denial. It's a very natural response, and it's actually a very adaptive response in the short term because it allows us to hit the pause button. It allows our brain and mind, and body and heart to catch up to understanding what's happening."
What it really does, says Dr. Samra, is it flips our minds dramatically from something that is otherwise overwhelming.
"We use laughter to fill the space when we don't know what to say or when we don't know what to feel."
"Sometimes we laugh because a situation feels so absurd that we actually find comedy in it. We can think, 'Can this really be happening?'," adds Dr. Gabriel.
Not everyone resonates with dark humour or comedy. Certain personalities are a little more attracted to that type of comedy and Dr. Samra advises that, "it's always good to be mindful of the impact to people around us."
She strongly advises against consumption of content that might be harmful and perpetuate negative stereotypes, especially in light of COVID-19.
We want to be mindful of the kind of content that we're consuming.- Dr. Samra
How much is enough
We have no control over what will make us laugh, but what would happen if we stopped laughing for a while?
"I think if we stopped laughing for a while, we'd have a very serious society. It would be much more likely for us to feel very heavy and weighed down, if we didn't have humour and comedy," says Dr. Samra.
"People do stop laughing sometimes," adds Dr. Gabriel. "When people get depressed, they often don't find anything funny. Some people with personality disorders have a hard time with humour. Neither of those are good situations."
She says that forcing laughter won't work either but comedy can help.
If you are looking for a way to entertain yourself in these weird times, a comedy might just make you feel better.- Dr. Gabriel
Dr. Rutledge adds that it is also possible to find things funny and have positive emotions without actually laughing.
So, how frequently should we watch comedy and laugh for an improved mood or health? Dr. Samra says we should laugh frequently. "Kids are a beautiful testament to the natural state of being. At least every day we should have moments that are making us laugh and smile."
How to watch responsibly
Take it easy on yourself and listen to your mood is the advice of all three psychologists.
"We are in an unusual time and for the very first time most of us are dealing with something of this [COVID-19] magnitude, in our lifetime. So, it's too easy to go down that vortex of watching all the news," says Dr. Samra, adding that many of us are immersed for hours checking the news — morning, through the day, before we go to bed — and we just have to balance that out.
She says that bingeing comedies can give us a little bit of a temporary escape from all of that: "It's wonderful, it's healthy, it's good for us and we're supposed to be homebound now anyways so it's a good way to keep us busy."
"If what you feel like you need is an afternoon or evening or nothing but your favourite show, go for it," adds Dr. Gabriel.
"Don't worry about watching too much," echoes Dr. Rutledge, "there's no point in feeling guilty about bingeing. It's much more important to keep your emotions positive."
Dr. Samra explains that it's also very easy for so many of us to start feeling weighed down and focused on all that is out of our control which can result in worries, anxieties and low mood. "It's very important to stay positive and balance that out with humour — whether it's in our home, with our families and friends or whether it's in our work teams."
Watching comedy, instilling humour can really be helpful. I really do believe in that.- Dr. Samra
"Now is the time to allow for guilty pleasures. As long as they are improving and not worsening your mood, you are doing it right," says Dr. Gabriel. "But, if you find that it is all you are doing and you are starting to feel down or unhappy then STOP and do something else."
For that reason they advise we keep a somewhat regular schedule to ensure we get plenty of sleep, exercise, get fresh air, eat well and, of course, virtually meet with friends until it's safe to do otherwise.
Browse through CBC Gem comedies now, figure out which ones make you laugh and enjoy watching, guilt-free!