The Benefits of Humor and Play


I believe in striking a balance between acceptance of things as they are and working to improve things.  One way that this manifests is in emotional experiencing.  One way to accept things as they are, is to experience whatever emotion may occur… positive or negative.  Sometimes it is appropriate, necessary and natural to allow one’s grief, despair, fear, or anger to be processed.  Conversely, working to improve your emotional state might involve nurturing, cultivating and exposing yourself to positive emotions such as hope, fun, courage, joy, and love.  I’d like to talk about the latter today, with the qualifier that, just as any coping skill, eliciting humor and playfulness are not always the right answer for a particular situation.  We need a variety of coping skills and principles to draw on, so that we can apply them in a variety of situations.  But in that toolbox of coping skills, humor and play hold a special place, endearing and sweet.

Let’s start with a video of piano-comedian Victor Borge to set the mood:

(if you can’t see this embedded video, click here to watch on YouTube)

Increasing Enjoyment and Pleasure

It may seem obvious to say that humor and play increase enjoyment and pleasure in life.  The main reason we are playful is because it’s fun.  But think about this for a moment, and don’t take the meaning of the above words for granted.  What a gift it is for someone in pain, for example, to have a moment of mirth… a smile, a playful exchange.  And what a loss if these were not available.  I propose that humor and play are not only an important day-to-day skill, but can also make challenging situations more tolerable, and can re-charge us to face life’s stress.

Who doesn’t want to find more enjoyment in life?  Why not try to nurture a little more humor and playfulness, no matter what your situation?  Perhaps reviewing the following benefits might remind you of their importance.

Play Early in Life and in Adulthood

We usually think of play as something that kids do, and certainly they do benefit from it.  Initially play helps kids learn to interact, to perceive another’s emotional state, and to respond appropriately.  Roughhousing prepares the young for fighting and hunting, role-playing is practice for various life roles, and games hone our skills and abilities.

An interesting finding is that kids smile about 400 times per day, whereas adults smile about 20 times per day!  Perhaps this is because adults have much more responsibility and often more stress.  We all know some adults who have a knack for humor, and a lighthearted sense of the world’s ironies; but for the rest of us, it may require a little more conscious effort to engage our humor and playfulness, and to continue to benefit from humor and play throughout life.  Let’s look at some specific benefits.

Physical Benefits

Physical play helps us to build and maintain strength, coordination, balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.  Laughter can slightly decrease pain, and increase immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies.  Thus it improves resistance to disease.  Laughter and play can also improve your sleep, respiration, blood vessels and heart health.  Some types of play can be relaxing, and a good hearty laugh has been shown to relieve physical tension for up to 45 minutes.

Mental Resilience

Humor and play can help you feel restored.  They can increase your quality of life and your will to live.  How?  For one, play can be a distraction from difficulties, frustrations and fears.  Also, humor eases anxiety, and provides perspective, so that you feel less overwhelmed.  Laughter is also very cathartic!  It releases built-up tension.  For example, a unique brand of humor is especially pronounced in high stress professions such as the military, firefighting or police work, where it helps people to manage high levels of tension.

Furthermore, laughter and play create a mood in which other positive emotions can be put to work.  They add joy, vitality and zest to life.  Humor adds to a positive, optimistic outlook in difficult situations.  Laugher uplifts, encourages and empowers… it lightens our burdens and inspires hope.  Laughter also lowers stress hormones and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.  Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being.

Brain Benefits

Play stimulates nerve growth in the entire brain, and especially in: the amygdala (where emotions are processed), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed), the frontal cortex (where most cognition occurs), and the cerebellum (involved with coordination, balance, attention, rhythm, and language).

Lifelong engagement in play activities reduces risk for dementia and other neurological disorders.  People who routinely engage in cognitively challenging games and activities may have as much as 63% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.  Play also helps maintain cognitive flexibility, focus and alertness.

Additionally, researchers in England have discovered through brain imaging, that one smile can stimulate our brain reward mechanism as much as 2000 chocolate bars or $25,000!

Social Benefits

Humor helps us to maintain relationships, ease tensions, discuss difficult topics, and collaborate more effectively.  Playfulness attracts others to us, puts us in sync with those around us, and keeps us connected.  Smiling makes others see us as more likeable, courteous and competent.

Additionally, light heartedness in relationships allows people to be more spontaneous, let go of defensiveness or anger, release inhibitions, and express their true feelings.  Play refreshes and fuels long-term adult relationships, and it is essential to intimacy.  It promotes the shared enjoyment of novelty, enjoyment of mutual storytelling, and capacity to be open and deeply connected.

Play and Work

I was listening to a radio show recently, about engineers who grew up tinkering with gadgets or machines, and whose play involved exploring the nature of things and the principles of science.  The conclusion of the show was that the decrease in this type of play has led to the decrease in the quality of our nation’s young engineers.  This is a good example of how childhood play can positively influence your work in adulthood.  But being a playful adult can also impact your work, and not just in the negative way that many would imagine.  One company that is famous for recognizing the benefits of playfulness among their employees is Google.

Let’s put it this way:  the opposite of play is not work… the opposite of play is depression.  Play can be quite similar to work, in that they can both be creative, social, active, skillful, imaginative, strategic, motivated, competitive, etc.  By contrast, depression is characterized by a lack of motivation or enjoyment.  Thus, your work can benefit when you can incorporate play into it (in a way that does not get in the way of the work).  This is why finding work that you like is such an important key to living a satisfying life.  But even if your work is very serious or dreary, supplementing it with hobbies and fun leisure activities can carry over a positive attitude into your work life.

Humor and Play in Serious Situations

I was recently invited to present on the importance of laughter and play at Arden Courts,  a memory care community.  As a facility dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, you can imagine that they’re often dealing with very stressful situations, illness, sadness, fear, loss, and perhaps at times, despair.  You might think that this is the last place for humor and playfulness.

There is a time for serious work, conversations, and for the processing of painful emotions.  These should not be ignored… but neither should the need for laughter, play and enjoyment.  It is precisely in such stressful situations that we most need an infusion of cheer and a moment of relief or easing of tension.

I’ve seen some of the best uses of humor by emergency room personnel dealing with a suicidal patient, and by hospice nurses dealing with individuals at the natural end of life.  Recognizing the usefulness of playfulness in serious situations can help you give yourself, and the patient, permission to smile and relax a little.  Allowing laughter and play, rather than demanding a constant somber seriousness, can also encourage family members to spend more time with the chronically ill patient.

Dealing with Day to Day Hassles

Can you think of an example of humor or playfulness when dealing with day to day interactions or hassles?  Making a joke about the traffic, car problems, awkward social moments, the weather, or other common stressors can lighten your mood and allow you to share a chuckle with others.  And although it is normal to commiserate at times by complaining, most of us prefer our relationships sprinkled with a bit of humor here and there, perhaps even while complaining!  You don’t have to be a comedian or class clown, but you might find that cracking a smile every once in a while helps make the day go more smoothly.

Ideas for Increasing Humor and Play

I hope that the overview of benefits above might help you see that time spent in play and humor are not just “unproductive time” that you have to feel guilty about.  Instead, these are ways to increase enjoyment, and ways to recharge and to cope with life’s stressors.

Exploring ways to increase play and improve humor are outside the scope of this article.  You may already know what works for you… what you find funny, what’s fun for you.  But if you feel that you’ve lost your sense of enjoyment in life, you may want to deliberately investigate options for increasing humor and playfulness in your life. The books cited below, at the end of this post, may be a good starting point.


Any good coping skill has the potential of being misused, so here are a few qualifiers (just in case):

  • Often, something positive can go awry if you take it too far.  For example, some people try to avoid ever directly dealing with difficult topics, moods, or realities in life by distracting excessively with humor or play.  So don’t be a pleasure junkie, but don’t be play-starved either!
  • Also, as I said in the beginning, play and humor are just two skills in your coping toolbox.  Sometimes they’re not the one’s you’ll want to use, and you may need others.
  • I’m not talking about a mean-spirited humor or laughter at other’s expense.

Laughter Yoga

Let’s leave off with one more video about an interesting recent phenomenon: laughter yoga.  I encourage you to capitalize on the contagious nature of laughter as you watch this.  You will see that in laughter yoga, the exercises start out with an artificial laugh, but that when people do this (especially in a group), it can quickly become genuine laughter.

(if you can’t see the embedded video, click here to watch on YouTube)


  1. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul – By Stuart Brown
  2. The Healing Power of Humor: Techniques for Getting through Loss, Setbacks, Upsets, Disappointments, Difficulties, Trials, Tribulations, and All That Not-So-Funny Stuff – by Allen Klein

Anda Jines MS LCPC offers mental health counseling services in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, in Tinley Park, IL (60477); near Orland Park, Oak Forest, Orland Hills, Palos Heights, Mokena, and Frankfort. Click here for more about Anda Jines MS LCPC.

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