Laughter has a powerful effect on your health and well-being. A good laugh relieves tension and stress, elevates mood, enhances creativity and problem-solving ability, and provides a quick energy boost. But even more importantly, laughter brings people together. Mutual laughter and play are an essential component of strong, healthy relationships. By making a conscious effort to incorporate more humor and play into your daily interactions, you can improve the quality of your love relationships—as well as your connections with co-workers, family members, and friends.
The power of laughter and play
Playful communication is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships exciting, fresh, and vital. Laughter and play enrich your interactions and give your relationships that extra zing that keeps them interesting, light, and enjoyable. This shared pleasure creates a sense of intimacy and connection—qualities that define solid, lasting relationships.
People are attracted to happy, funny individuals. Laughter draws others to you and keeps them by your side. When you laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment. And laughter really is contagious—just hearing laughter primes your brain to smile and join in on the fun.
Playful communication helps you:
- Connect to others. Your health and happiness depend, to a large degree, on the quality of your relationships—and laughter binds people together.
- Smooth over differences. Using gentle humor often helps you broach sensitive subjects, resolve disagreements, and reframe problems.
- Feel relaxed and energized at the same time. Laughter relieves fatigue and relaxes your body, while also recharging your batteries and helping you accomplish more.
- Overcome problems and setbacks. A sense of humor is the key to resilience. It helps you take hardships in stride, weather disappointment, and bounce back from adversity and loss.
- Put things into perspective. Most situations are not as bleak as they appear to be when looked at from a playful and humorous point of view.
- Be more creative. Humor and playfulness loosen you up, energizing thinking and inspiring creative problem solving.
The health benefits of laughter
Laughter and playfulness also come with numerous physical and mental health benefits. Laughter triggers a host of healthy changes in your brain and body.
Laughter helps you stay healthy by:
- Boosting your mood
- Decreasing stress hormones
- Improving oxygen flow to the brain
- Reducing physical pain
- Lowering blood pressure
- Strengthening the immune system
- Protecting the heart
- Relaxing your body
Mental health benefits of laughter and humor
The mental health benefits of laughter are tied to the physical benefits. When your body is relaxed and energized, you are better able to think and communicate clearly. This helps you keep your own emotions in check, relate in a positive way to others, and resolve conflict.
Laughter is a particularly powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. Having a sense of humor offsets depression and anxiety by:
- Releasing endorphins. When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that boost mood and override sadness and negative thoughts.
- Putting things into perspective. Most situations are not as bleak as they appear to be when looked at from a playful and humorous point of view.
- Connecting us to others. Our mental health depends, to a large degree, on the quality of our relationships—and laughter binds people together.
Playful communication in relationships tip #1: Make sure both partners are in on the joke
Humor and playfulness can strengthen relationships—but only when both people are in on the joke. It’s important to be sensitive to the other person. If your partner, friend, or colleague isn’t likely to appreciate the joke, don’t say or do it, even if it’s “all in good fun.” When playfulness is one-sided rather than mutual, it undermines trust and goodwill and damages the relationship. Consider the following example:
Michelle’s feet are always cold when she gets into bed, but she has what she thinks is a playful solution. She heats up her icy feet by placing them on her husband Kevin’s warm body. However, this isn’t a game he enjoys. Kevin has repeatedly told Michelle that he doesn’t appreciate being used as a foot warmer, but she just laughs at his complaints. Lately, Kevin has taken to sleeping at the far edge of the bed, a solution that distances them as a couple.
Playful communication in relationships should be equally fun and enjoyable for both people. If your friend or partner doesn’t think your joking or teasing is funny—it’s not. So before you start playing around, take a moment to consider your motives, as well as your partner or friend’s state of mind and sense of humor.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel calm, clear-headed, and connected to the other person?
- Is your true intent to communicate positive feelings—or are you taking a dig, expressing anger, or laughing at the other person’s expense?
- Are you sure that the joke will be understood and appreciated?
- Are you aware of the emotional tone of the nonverbal messages you are sending? Are you giving off positive, warm signals or a negative, aggressive, or hostile tone?
- Are you sensitive to the nonverbal signals the other person is sending? Do they seem open and receptive to your humor, or closed-off and offended?
- Are you willing and able to back off if the other person responds negatively to the joke?
- If you say or do something that offends, is it easy for you to immediately apologize?
Playful communication in relationships tip #2: Use humor to defuse conflict
When conflict and disagreement throw a wrench in your relationships, humor and playfulness can help lighten things up and restore a sense of connection. Used skillfully and respectfully, playful humor can turn conflict into an opportunity for shared fun and intimacy. It allows you to get your point across without getting the other person’s defenses up or hurting their feelings. For example:
Lori’s husband comes home sweaty and dirty from his job. This turns her off, and she can’t imagine being intimate with him under these circumstances. But when she says he should take a bath, he gets angry and accuses her of not appreciating what he does for a living. So instead, Lori turns on the water, begins playfully peeling off his clothes, and joins him in the tub.
Alex is retired, but he still goes up on the roof to clean the gutters. His wife, Angie, has told him numerous times that it scares her when he gets up there on the ladder. Today, instead of her usual complaints, she yells up to him, “You know, it’s husbands like you who turn wives into nags.” Alex laughs and comes down from the roof.
Humor and playfulness—free or hurtful sarcasm or ridicule—neutralize conflict by helping you:
- Interrupt the power struggle, instantly easing tension and allowing you to reconnect and regain perspective.
- Be more spontaneous. Shared laughter and play helps you break free from rigid ways of thinking and behaving, allowing you to see the problem in a new way and find a creative solution.
- Be less defensive. In playful settings, we hear things differently and can tolerate learning things about ourselves that we otherwise might find unpleasant or even painful.
- Let go of inhibitions. Laughter opens us up, freeing us to express what we truly feel and allowing our deep, genuine emotions to rise to the surface.
Playful communication in relationships tip #3: Don’t use humor to cover up other emotions
Humor and shared playfulness help you stay resilient in the face of life’s challenges. But there are times when humor is not healthy—when it is used as a cover for avoiding, rather than coping with, painful emotions. Laughter can be a disguise for feelings of hurt, fear, anger, and disappointment that you don’t want to feel or don’t know how to express.
You can be funny about the truth—but covering up the truth isn’t funny. When you use humor and playfulness as a cover for other emotions, you create confusion and mistrust in your relationships. The following are examples of misplaced humor:
Mike is a constant jokester. Nothing ever seems to get him down and he never takes anything seriously. No matter what happens to him or to anyone else, he makes a joke out of the situation. In reality, Mike is scared to death of dark feelings, conflict, and intimacy. He uses humor to avoid uncomfortable feelings and to keep other people at arm’s length.
Sharon is often jealous and possessive with her husband Kevin. But she has never learned to openly discuss her insecurities and fears. Instead, she uses what she thinks is humor to express her feelings. However, her “jokes” usually having a biting, almost hostile edge and do not seem at all funny to Kevin, who responds with coldness and withdrawal.
For cues as to whether or not humor is being used to conceal other emotions, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do nonverbal communication signals—such as tone of voice, intensity, timing—feel genuinely humorous to you, or do you experience them as forced or “not right” somehow?
- Is humor the only emotion you routinely express, or is there a mixture of other emotions that at least occasionally includes sadness, fear, and anger?
Improving your playful communication skills
It’s never too late to develop and embrace your playful, humorous side. Self-consciousness and concern for how you look and sound to others is probably a big factor that’s limiting your playfulness. But as a baby, you were naturally playful; you didn’t worry about the reactions of other people.
You can reclaim your inborn playfulness by setting aside regular, quality playtime. The more you joke, play, and laugh—the easier it becomes.
Cultivating your sense of humor and playfulness
The process of learning to play depends on your preferences. Begin by observing what you already do that borders on fun or playful.
After you recognize things you already enjoy, you can try to incorporate more playful activities into your life. The important thing is to find enjoyable activities that loosen you up and help you embrace your playful nature with other people.
Another excellent way to learn playfulness is to practice with “experts”:
|Play with animals. Kittens, and other animals—both young and old—are eager playmates and always ready to frolic. Make play dates with friends’ pets, stop to play with a friendly animal in your neighborhood, or consider getting a pet of your own.|
|Play with babies and young children. The real authorities in human play are children, especially young children. Playing with children who know and trust you is a wonderful way to learn from the experts.|
|Interact playfully with customer service people. Most people in the service industry are social and you’ll find that many will welcome playful banter. Try your wit out on a friendly cashier, receptionist, waiter, hostess, or salesperson.|
As humor and play become an integrated part of your life, you should find new opportunities for play daily.
Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.