How to Build a Humor Mindset to Shift Stress in Difficult Times

By Heidi Hanna, PhD

*This is an article from the Fall 2020 issue of Contentment Magazine.

Although there is nothing funny about the collective state of stress that we are all living through right now, there are plenty of reasons to practice finding things funny – especially in times like these.

Research has shown that finding something funny causes a cascade of biological changes in the brain and body. When we laugh, it’s a physical expression of humor that triggers abdominal contractions, which stimulates circulation and the release of “feel good” chemicals as the body lets go of muscle tension.

But even without laughing, just the mental and emotional experience of finding something humorous can nudge our neurons towards the positive. 

Research by Lee Berk, PhD suggests that mirth — the emotional experience of being amused — stimulates the production of gamma waves in the brain that shift the body into a more relaxed state, like deep meditation. In another, Gurinder Bains, MD, PhD showed that watching a video of something the individual rates as being humorous enhances memory and reduces inflammation, as measured by the amount of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the bloodstream.

There is a significant amount of research showing that experiencing humor also boosts the production of immune cells, reduces pain and chronic fatigue, and may be able to improve mental and emotional health by shifting negativity bias — our natural, self-protective tendency to see the threats in our environment — towards the positive.

What is Humor?

Humor is a whole-brain activity that includes wit (cognitive), mirth (emotional), and laughter (physiological response). Not all of these need to be present for someone to enjoy the benefits of healthy humor.

Laughter yoga has become quite a popular way for people to get the benefits of laughter and the associated physical tension release regardless of whether there is a cognitive or emotional trigger. Wit allows us to reframe a situation by playing with our challenges and seeing things from a different perspective, decreasing anxiety and anger. This type of practice essentially builds up cognitive flexibility to see life from a new frame of mind. Like experiences of gratitude or appreciation, mirth is a positive emotion that we can tap into either by noticing something funny that’s happening in the moment or recalling pleasant humorous experiences (moments of mirth) that can sooth the nerves by reducing tension and hostility.

Why Humor?

Because chronic or toxic stress is often triggered by thoughts that are overwhelming or uncomfortable, a focus on sadness about past events, or worry about what’s in the future, humor gives the brain an opportunity to rest and find relief in present-moment experiences. For many people, finding things funny allows them to play with their pain and reframe perceived threats as being less catastrophic.

Many, if not most comedians have experienced suffering in their lives and have learned to find what’s ironic or even absurd that can be used as a punch line or a funny story. In this way, humor can also give us an outlet for the pain and frustration in our lives, making us feel more in control of our own mindsets and be able to thought shift our own experiences.

Humor can be very effective for reducing the pressure and tension caused by stress and enabling any one of us to feel more in control of our experience of life. Although we can’t always control what happens to us, we can make a choice about how we want to react and respond. Humor can help us to communicate more effectively with each other, leveling the playing field when the players on that field are of different statuses, such as a boss and a direct report or a parent and child.

The point isn’t to make our pain go away or avoid what’s necessary to confront, but rather to use humor as a coping mechanism and, again, another tool in our toolkit for shifting out of the grasp of chronic stress long enough to problem solve and collaborate with others more effectively.

We often naturally turn to humor to break up tension within ourselves or with a tough crowd at work or home. But having a sense of humor isn’t always natural. Again, the more we practice finding things funny, the more we see funny. The more we learn to let down our mental filter, which is constantly saying, “That’s not funny” or “It’s too soon to find that funny,” the more we can allow ourselves to relish the ridiculous. The more amazing and amusing life becomes, the more the natural challenges of life don’t seem quite as overwhelming.

Tips to Build Your Mirth Muscle and See More Funny

By using humor strategically, actually planning time to experience things you find funny on a regular basis, you build a mental muscle that is more in tune to the humor of your day. Just like anything else you pay attention to, where focus goes energy flows, and you start seeing more of what you would like to see.

So, if you want to have more fun, play, and laughter in your life be a proactive force that will shift you in that direction. Here are a few quick techniques to try:

  1. Share a funny image with a friend every day via text message (your Humor Buddy or Humor Homie).
  2. Add a funny cartoon to your email signature.
  3. Create a funny playlist with videos you enjoy and plan a time to watch them during your morning and afternoon recharge breaks.
  4. Go on a walk and look for things to find funny. Take pictures and share them for a greater boost.
  5. Find a funny podcast or YouTube channel to listen to each evening to reset your brain to relax. (Check out the app Laughable to explore new comedians.)

The best way to create a new habit is to enlist the support of a friend, so ask someone to be your humor buddy and commit to sharing things you find funny as often as you can. Each time you receive your humor nudge you’ll be reminded to stop and reflect, and when you share, you’ll not only find funny yourself, you’ll know that you’re contributing to help recharge someone you care about.

The more we commit to shifting our stress for good, the more positive and calm our world will become. Little neural nudges can make a big difference when we’re all practicing together. And the more we can all see funny, the better we can collaborate to solve the stress of the world.

Want to learn more?

Visit the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor: and The International Society for Humor Studies at

Article adapted from an interview with Everyday Health.


  1. Fight stress with healthy habits. American Heart Association. Accessed Feb. 12, 2016.
  2. Woodbury-Farina MA, et al. Humor. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2014; 37:561.
  3. Wilkins J, et al. Humor theories and the physiological benefits of laughter. Holistic Nursing Practice. 2009; 23:349.
  4. Lebowitz KR, et al. Effects of humor and laughter on psychological functioning, quality of life, health status, and pulmonary functioning among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A preliminary investigation. Heart & Lung. 2011; 40:310.
  5. Kim SH, et al. Laughter and stress relief in cancer patients: A pilot study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015; 2015:864739.
  6. Chang C, et al. Psychological, immunological and physiological effects of a Laughing Qigong Program (LQP) on adolescents. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2013; 21:660.
  7. Seaward BL. Comic relief: The healing power of humor. In: Essentials of Managing Stress. 3rd ed. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones & Bartlett Publishers; 2014.


Heidi Hanna, Ph.D. was the editor of Contentment magazine from 2013-2019. She is currently the Chief Energy Officer of Synergy Brain Fitness, a company providing brain-based health and performance programs to individuals and organizations, a founding partner with the Brain Health Initiative, and an instructor at Harvard Extension. She’s a NY Times bestselling author who has written seven books, including The Sharp Solution, stressaholic, Recharge, and What’s So Funny About Stress.