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It's possible to train our "humor muscle"

Julia Vergin
April 11, 2019

Can't find anything to laugh about? That's a pity, because according to a new study, laughter actually makes people happier.

Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Our bodies and minds are closely linked. How we think affects how we feel. 

That's the central tenet of an American meta study, in which scientists confirm what some of us may have already guessed: people with a smile on their face are happier. They found that our facial expressions — smiling and laughing, for example — can change the way we feel for the better, even if we don't think we have anything to laugh about. 

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Personally, when I first encounter the swollen, crumpled version of myself in the mirror in the morning on my way to work, when I get stuck in what feels like the longest traffic jam in the world, and when I come home and realize that I've locked myself out, I usually struggle to find something to laugh about. 

Kareen Seidler, research assistant at the German Institute for Humor (it really exists), says it's about our mindset. "If you look for humor, you'll find it," she told DW. 

Seidler and her colleagues help those who struggle to see the funny side with coaching sessions at the institute. 

Eva Ullmann, who studied medicine and pedagogy, founded the institute in Leipzig in 2005. It aims to teach people about how humor can be used in interpersonal communication — especially in their everyday professional life, says Seidler.

6 facts about laughter

Come what may

Humor is the ability and willingness to react to certain things in a cheerful and relaxed way. Eva Ullmann's team at the Humor Institute is glad to help with the development of this ability. "Our goal is to make people's everyday lives smoother through humor," Seidler told DW.

"There are situations in which humor seems completely inappropriate," she says. Illness and death, for example. An article about the German Institute for Humor "Doctors and Humor" is certain about this — mixing humor and illness is not out of bounds. Quite the contrary.

It says that humor helps people who work in palliative care and are confronted with death on a daily basis from going mad. Humor can be used as "burnout prophylaxis" and a "cognitive antioxidant". It can also be a coping mechanism for people facing death.

If people still find the strength to be humorous and funny in the face of death, then we should succeed in doing so standing in the thickest of traffic jams, shouldn't we? "Positive reinterpretation" is the magic phrase Kareen Seidler uses here.

Laughing can be learned!

A question of training

Whether I'm stuck in a traffic jam in the street or in the giant queue at the supermarket checkout, "positively reinterpreted," I'm experiencing an absolute deceleration. Faced with a locked apartment door (I'm standing outside, my keys are inside), I'm forced to attempt to open the door with my credit card. And to laugh. 

Because the fact is, I can't escape corrosive situations even when I'm acting angry, like Rumpelstiltskin. "Humor makes a change of perspective possible," says Seidler.

But that's something that needs to be practiced. When starting out, reflection can help. It's easier to laugh at annoying situations in retrospect. But the stumbles we encounter in everyday life have a lot to offer. Seidler says we only have to open our eyes.

I spent some time with two friends looking for absurd surnames — on signs on the street, online, everywhere. Although it was years ago, I still have to laugh about "Dr Anxietyworm" today (if you're reading this, forgive me!). Such experiences train our "humor muscle," Seidler says.

This not only makes everyday life easier, but also makes us, as the study points out, a little happier.

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