When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Carmen Emery, 75, began emailing uplifting spiritual meditations to about 300 friends from church. She quickly realized the daily emails needed something more, so she added three or four funny memes at the end of each meditation, with one-liners like “My housekeeping style can best be described as ‘There appears to have been a struggle’” and “Don’t blame others for the road you’re on. That’s your own asphalt.”
Emery’s friends appreciated the meditations, but they really loved the goofy memes. Messages of gratitude poured in.
“I get lots of people quoting their favorites,” she said.
Buoyed by the response, Emery kept up with the messages, sending emails for more than 500 consecutive days, including two weeks in December when she battled COVID-19.
“Looking for memes each day has been a blast,” she said. “And sharing humor lifted my spirits and gave me a way to spread joy with others.”
Humor helps people weather difficult times, and a growing body of research suggests it goes even further. Humor is a tool that can help older adults stay healthier, happier and more able to cope with the challenges of aging.
“Every single body system that is negatively affected by stress can be positively affected by humor,” said Karyn Buxman, a registered nurse and professional speaker, who calls herself a “neurohumorist.”
Laughter increases adrenaline and oxygen flow and releases endorphins. Laughing and enjoying humor help lower cortisol. (High levels of cortisol are linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes.) Studies suggest that humor can help people solve problems and make better decisions. Humor can decrease loneliness, depression and anger.
Laughter, along with an active sense of humor, may help protect against a heart attack. Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were less likely to laugh, in a variety of situations, compared to those without heart disease.
“The old saying that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart,” said Michael Miller, MD, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland.
A small study at the University of Texas, Austin, asked healthy adults to watch a humorous, 30-minute video or a documentary. Researchers then measured artery function and flexibility. Both measures improved immediately in the volunteers who watched a comedy and stayed that way for almost 24 hours. Artery function decreased slightly among those who watched a documentary.
Laughing, Not Crying
Research points to humor as a powerful coping tool for helping older adults deal with the negative aspects of aging. As a caregiving expert who works with older adults, Pamela Wilson sees that often—like the time when she had to assist an older woman with Alzheimer’s in using the toilet. Humor lightened the mood.
“Whoever thought I would need this kind of help at this age?” the woman joked.
“Making a joke helped her to not be so embarrassed,” said Wilson. “Because we were laughing together, she didn’t feel as badly about the situation.” Wilson added that older adults who are able to adapt often seem to be the ones who are more able to laugh at themselves.
“Especially as we age, life either gets funnier or more sobering,” said Dena Kouremetis, 70, who writes a column, (R)aging with Grace, for Psychology Today. “That adage about laughing instead of crying begins to make real sense.”
If you’re feeling lonely or isolated, sharing laughter can help.
Humor is also a source of social connection that brings friends, families and couples together. Kouremetis says shared jokes and laughs keep her relationship with her husband humming along.
“Humor gets you through the losses that come with aging,” she said. “If you don’t have a shared sense of humor, you’re not going to get through it.”
Humor also tends to be contagious and best enjoyed with others.
“Sharing laughter—watching a favorite sitcom with a spouse or reminiscing about funny memories with friends—reduces isolation and loneliness, which contributes to good physical, psychological and cognitive health,” said Jennifer FitzPatrick, a social worker and author of Cruising through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One (2016).
Laughing With or Laughing At?
Humor about the process of aging is important and helpful as people age. Humor is very personal, and there is a line between what’s funny and what’s offensive, but the ups and downs of aging do offer a rich mine of humorous situations. Several aging and caregiving experts interviewed for this article praised The Kominsky Method, a Netflix dramedy series that tackles topics like erectile dysfunction, health problems and end-of-life with humor and empathy.
“You have two characters [played by Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas] who are very good friends, talking about this stuff that happens every day when you’re older,” said Wilson. “They’re not afraid to talk about it. They’re laughing about it.”
Aging provides plenty of what comedians might call “material.” Older adults are more likely to face chronic health issues, with the daily challenges that come with them: medications, doctor visits and more. Even active, healthy older adults sooner or later face the realities of aging—the need for reading glasses, occasional forgetfulness, diminished physical strength, minor aches and pains. Having the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life becomes an effective coping strategy.
Humor is closely intertwined with positivity or being “in good humor”—maintaining a cheerful attitude and having a willingness to be playful and creative, according to Kathy Laurenhue, CEO of Wiser Now, Inc., a publishing company focused on well-being in aging. Positive, optimistic people often see the humor in a situation. They tend to be more resilient, have better coping and problem-solving skills, seek social support more often and live longer and healthier lives than those who are generally negative.
Humor vs Laughter
Laughter and humor aren’t quite the same thing, cautions Chandramallika Basak, associate professor at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas.
“Laughter is more expressive, but humor is more cerebral,” Basak said. This is reflected in research that suggests that aging-related cognitive decline can reduce an older person’s ability to comprehend humor. In one study, older adults were less likely to choose the correct punch line for a joke in a multiple-choice test. On the other hand, older subjects were more likely to show appreciation and enjoyment of humor.
“That’s not surprising to me as a cognitive scientist,” said Basak. “Short-term, working memory plays a big role in humor. That’s a function of the frontal lobe, one of the first areas of the brain to decline with age. But the amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and laughter, doesn’t decline as rapidly.”
As we age, our taste in humor may change too. Researchers have divided humor into three categories: affiliative humor, which promotes social bonding through self-deprecatory, ‘I can relate to that’ humor; aggressive humor, which mocks or ridicules others; and self-enhancing humor, which highlights the positive aspect of a situation. Older adults tend to enjoy affiliative humor and are more likely to object to aggressive humor.
Coping with Fear
As a “physician-comedienne,” Cynthia Shelby-Lane, MD, takes humor very seriously. She completed training at the Second City Training Center in Chicago and performs standup in comedy clubs in her spare time.
She’s convinced humor keeps her vital; she’s still practicing emergency medicine at 70. Humor also helps her connect with patients and brings relief in agonizing moments, such as the time in the emergency room when she handed a baby aspirin to a 350-pound, 6-foot-3 man who had just had a heart attack.
“A baby aspirin?!” he said. “Are you kidding? Doc, have you seen my size?” The two shared a good laugh. The patient was moved to the ICU and died later that evening.
“I’m glad we could laugh together before he died,” she said. “He was so scared, but that moment eased his fear.”
Humor’s ability to disarm fear also makes it a good teaching tool. Gail Rubin, a death educator, uses humor to nudge older adults to have conversations they’d rather not have about death and end-of-life planning. When she speaks to audiences, she tosses off one-liners like “Let’s get death out of the closet” and “Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant; talking about funerals won’t make you dead.”
It’s an effective icebreaker. “When people laugh, they relax and they learn,” Rubin said. “Laughter opens people up to what they need to know.”
If laughter is truly the best medicine, can humor be used as an intervention to promote health? Can people bring humor into their lives intentionally?
An older adult needn’t be good at telling jokes or being funny to enjoy the benefits of humor. But humor isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription.
“One person might really enjoy potty humor, another slapstick, and another satire,” said Marie Gress, a licensed social worker in Michigan.
But anyone can intentionally add humor to the daily routine by nurturing friendships with people who make them laugh or by bookmarking funny videos on their computers. Buxman keeps a file of “moments of mirth”—funny experiences she can revisit, mentally, down the road, recreating the burst of good feeling. She even enlists strangers for hits of humor: “If I’m in an Uber, I’ll ask the driver, ‘Tell me about the craziest person you’ve ever driven.’”
“It’s about mindset,” Buxman said. “Funny things are always happening. You can learn to start seeing and experiencing the humor that was always there.”
Freelance writer Mary Jacobs lives in Plano, TX, and covers health and fitness, spirituality, and issues relating to older adults. She writes for the Dallas Morning News, the Senior Voice, Religion News Service and other publications; her work has been honored by the Religion Communicators Council, the Associated Church Press and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Visit www.MaryJacobs.com for more.