Why Laughter Can Make You Sexy, Healthy, and Successful*

by Caryl S. Avery

“There’s a little bit of stand-up comic in everyone; the performance comes not when you’re having a fight with your boyfriend, but in telling a friend afterward.” –Judy Carter

“I was never funny until I decided to be.” –Rita Rudner

“Humor has, without a doubt, made me more attractive to men.” –Lotus Weinstock

“As long as you can make a joke about a situation, you’re not the victim. It’s a way of coming out on top.” –Emily Levine

“Laughing is what gives us perspective, keeps us sane and communicating with each other.” –Jo Anne Astrow

“Once you’ve bombed, you know what it’s like to hit bottom—and that you’re not going to be destroyed by it. That alone has value—it’s a confidence-building thing.” –Paula Poundstone

What these comments from six of the country’s top female stand-up comics add up to: that even for the pros, a sense of humor is more than just a way of making money. It’s a way of making friends, making a go of love, making sense out of life. And it’s not an either-you-got-it-or-you-don’t proposition. Comic vision can be cultivated. By anyone. You don’t even have to stand up to do it. You can just sit down with this article and get a quick course in how-to and how it’s going to pay off in your life.

Why “laughter is the shortest distance between two people”

“The idea that not everyone has a sense of humor is simply not true,” says Harvey Mindess, Ph.D., humor expert and professor of psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles. “Everybody is born with one, although it can become repressed or suppressed along the way. So it’s not a question of inventing a sense of humor, but of finding yours.”

Why bother? “Because humor at its best encourages a broad perspective on life,” says Dr. Mindess. “It provides a view of the ironies that abound, of the fact that nobody and nothing is as it seems. (Rudner: I used to have a Lhasa apso, which, in case you don’t know, is a small dog with lots of hair, so it’s very difficult to tell which end is which. I was very upset when I found out I’d been teaching her to sit by shoving her head to the floor.) And recognizing life’s zaniness encourages flexibility and adaptability, rather than rigidity and brittleness.” (If I were to get a dog again, I would get a seeing-eye dog, or a guard dog, or a hunting dog because I don’t have enough time to spend at home—I feel guilty. I’d feel better if I had a dog that was involved with a career.)

One of the advantages of this adaptability: It draws others to you. People view you as more accepting, able to roll with the punches. This, in turn, allows them to be themselves—which explains Victor Borge’s quip that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

Reducing the distance not only lets you enjoy more honest, interesting, intimate exchanges, but also gives you more influence. “Persuasion research shows that humorous people are liked better than nonhumorous ones, and that we are more easily influenced by people we like,” says Peter Marsh, Ph.D., a social psychologist in Oxford, England, and author of Eye to Eye. In one experiment, grad students played the role of sellers in a bargaining situation. Some were instructed to use humor, while others were told to try to get the highest possible price for the painting they were “selling” in a straightforward, serious way. Dealers with the more lighthearted approach consistently got more money. “In this context,” says Dr. March, “humor increases trust and rapport so the buyer feels he can make a concession without losing face.”

Kidding around can work in a similar way when you’re the buyer: “Making jokes that don’t threaten the self-esteem of the person who’s trying to sell you a car or whatever can get you a better deal.”

Says comedy writer and stand-up comic Emily Levine, “Humor is extraordinary for making connections with people. Everyone has such a separate reality, and it’s alienating to feel you’ll never really be understood because nobody sees the world the same way you do. But when you make a joke and someone else gets it, it means that for that moment, your minds worked exactly the same, you were totally in sync. That’s divine grace.”

Little love laughs

Its ability to connect and persuade accounts in good measure for humor’s popularity as an ice-breaker between the sexes. And once the ice is broken, humor is often used to test the emotional waters. For instance, a man might tell a woman a racy joke or make a risqué comment to find out by her reaction if she’s interested in increasing the intimacy between them. “Doing it in the name of play provides an easy retreat,” says Thomas Kuhlman, Ph.D., author of Humor and Psychotherapy. “It allows him to decommit—‘I was only joking’—if the humor is not appreciated.”

Although this is still mostly a male gambit, women are starting to use it, too. To increase your chance of succeeding—with any kind of humor—first you need to send a “play signal,” says Dr. Kuhlman. “This serves as a cue, a priming, for the joke or light remark to come. It may be a sudden lilt in your voice, a change in facial expression or even saying, ‘Did you hear the one about…?’ This is an invitation to the other person to take a break from being serious.” Although the invitation can always be refused, “this kind of joking innuendo can be highly successful,” says Dr. Marsh. “It depends mostly on your timing and how skilled you are at judging other people’s reactions.”

But it’s once a relationship has been established that laughter comes in most handy—especially after the honeymoon is over. (Astrow: This Saturday I’m celebrating 20 years of marriage. I did it the hard way—four men. My first marriage was an appetizer marriage. It was a little antipasto marriage, a little guacamole marriage—I married a dip…. Rudner: Marriages don’t last anymore. When I meet a guy, the first question I ask myself is, “Is this the man I want my children to spend every other weekend with?”…I don’t like for better or for worse; I like for better or forget it.)

“It’s not unusual, when two people have been dating for a while, for someone to ask if they’re ‘getting serious’ about each other,” says Joel Goodman, Ed.D., director of The Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, New York. “It would be more beneficial to ask if they’re ‘getting lighthearted.’ It’s a simple switch of words, but the words we use have a real impact on how we approach things.” (Rudner: I hate when people ask about my relationship, Is it serious? That’s one step away from, Is it terminal?) The fact is, most people know instinctively that “serious” is not what they want in a mate—at least not all the time. In practically every survey of the characteristics people want most in a partner, a sense of humor ranks number one or two, says Dr. Goodman. For several good reasons.

The sex appeal of comic appeal

First off, it draws people closer together. Although Freud viewed humor primarily as a socially acceptable way of discharging sexual and aggressive energy, “you can also look at it as a ‘safe’ way of violating social taboos,” says Dr. Kuhlman. When you tell a “dirty” joke, for instance, you violate a taboo against sexual expression and set yourself and the person you’re sharing the joke with apart from society. That is, you and he form an in-group, the rest of the world an out-group. What this does, in essence, is reinforce the bond, the alliance, between you. It’s the old “us against the world.” This also explains why couples tend to have “in” jokes, “shared understandings that no one outside the relationship can appreciate,” says Dr. Marsh.

But there’s more to humor as a relationship glue. People who laugh are simply more appealing. In part this is because of the contagious nature of laughter, but it’s as much because of what it does to you as to the other person. “It adds to your overall attractiveness,” says Dr. Marsh. “A smiling face has more appeal—perhaps even more sex appeal—than a nonsmiling one.”

Indeed, according to Susan Horowitz, Ph.D., a New York City humor specialist who wrote a dissertation entitled “Funny Women,” there is a connection between comic appeal and sex appeal. “Both are forms of power,” she explains. “Just as a good stripper has her audience in the palm of her hand, so a good comic—especially today’s, whose material is much more autobiographical than ever before—controls her audience by baring her soul.” In other words, put a funny spin on what happened to you today (at the office/dentist/motor vehicle bureau) and you’ve got his attention.

As Rita Rudner puts it, “I don’t laugh at jokes, I laugh at life. If you can be funny, people want to listen to you. And if they listen, you get more confident.” And studies show that men like confident women.

Finally, not only is laughter a relationships infuser, it is also a tension defuser. One young lawyer regularly avoids fights with her husband by reminding him of a joke he once told her: Back in pioneer days, a couple gets married and as they’re headed home in his horse-drawn wagon, the horse keeps tripping. The first time it happens, the husband get out, smacks the horse and says, “That’s one.” The second time, he gets out, whips the horse and says, “That’s two.” The horrified wife says nothing until the third time, when the husband gets out, shoots the horse and says, “That’s three!” When she screams, “What are you doing, are you crazy?” he turns to her and says, “That’s one.” Now, whenever the lawyer’s husband does something she doesn’t like, instead of starting a major fight, she simply says, “That’s one.”

Moral: If you can find something, anything, to laugh about when you’re angry, you won’t stay angry long. Dr Marsh: “Laughter and anger are mutually incompatible responses.”

Provided, of course, you’re not using humor to put the other person down, (Carter: Gee, Fred, that looks like a penis, only smaller.) Humor can be used for all the wrong reasons: to hurt (intentionally or otherwise), to make fun of someone, to avoid intimacy, to put off dealing with important issues. “There are times when joking is appropriate and times when it isn’t,” cautions Dr. Goodman. “You have to be ready to back off.” And you have to know your motives. Says comedian Lotus Weinstock, “Humor used to reduce somebody is a slap; humor used to ‘make it better’ is a caress.”

Joking about the unjokable: Why you should

In addition to the social value of laughter, there are purely personal benefits as well. Psychological ones, for starters. “And you don’t have to guffaw to experience them,” says Dr. Goodman. “A quiet internal chuckle will do.” The kind inspired by an amusing cartoon, a child’s comment, an unusual sight, an off-the-wall thought. (Weinstock: Dear Abby, Is it wrong to fake orgasm during masturbation?…I never met a paranoid person who wasn’t being talked about.) Humor, the experts agree, is more than joke-telling, more than laughter; it’s a way of looking at the world.

“Stress, for instance, is not the result of an event, but our perception of that event,” notes Dr. Goodman. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we do have considerable say over how we let it affect us. Here’s where we can take a lesson from the pros.

“I always get annoyed when people think that because I have a sense of humor, bad things don’t affect me,” says Paula Poundstone. “When I have a shitty day, I feel as bad as anyone else. But later, when I look at it from another perspective to turn it into material, that’s when some of the bad feelings go away.”

For this reason, Dr. Mindess tries to get his patients to “laugh through their tears, to see the comedy in their tragedy.” Although there are some situations, he concedes, that are purely tragic, there’s an element of the absurd in most of our sufferings because we tend to exaggerate them. “To some extent, we are the architects of our own despair.” Recognizing the absurd in the very thing we’re stressed or depressed or angry about diminishes those negative feelings and gives us a sense of control: “Even if you can’t change the situation,” he says, “you can change your outlook so it appears different.”

Fear is another negative emotion that shrinks in the face of funny. Even our deepest fears—of serious illness and death—are not immune to laughter’s power. (Weinstock: Don’t take me yet, God, I’m not finished being afraid to die.)

Although we are all aware that, as Woody Allen puts it, “birth is a fatal disease,” most of us find it difficult to lighten up about that fact, says Allen Klein, author of the forthcoming book Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying. We treat death as a taboo subject, certainly not one to kid about. But by keeping our anxieties in, we let them control us.

“By contrast, joking about death—or anything else that oppresses—makes it less frightening,” says Klein. “Like the bogeyman in a dark closet, when we open the door and let some lightness in, it’s less scary.”

One way to do this: Woody Allen’s. By juxtaposing our fears of death with the nitty-gritty of everyday life (I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I am bringing a change of underwear), he “illustrates how we can get on friendly terms with our stalwart enemy,” says Klein. “He shows us that even death is not so terrifying when we can bring it down to our level.”

But death isn’t the only time we are confronted with a reality we have no control over—and could live without. Whenever you stand helpless in the face of circumstance, that’s just the time for a little stand-up.

“Gallows humor” is a way of winning in a no-win situation. (Executioner to man about to be hanged: “ Would you like a last cigarette?” Condemned man: “No thanks, I just quit yesterday.” Or there’s the Shel Silverstein cartoon of two prisoners shackled to opposite walls of a bare, windowless cell, one saying to the other, “Now here’s my plan.”) Such humor provides a “playful, symbolic mastery” when no real solution is possible, says Dr. Kuhlman, “a way of saving face in certain defeat, withdrawing one’s investment when the market has already crashed.” In other words, it’s a coping mechanism for when all else fails.

But it’s also more than that. As Freud wrote in 1928, this kind of humor is something “fine and elevating…the triumph of narcissism, the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability. It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality or be compelled to suffer. It insists that it is impervious to wounds dealt by the outside world, in fact, that these are merely occasions for according it pleasure.”

Good reasons to make fun of yourself

If laughter protects the ego against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” it also comes to the rescue when you accidentally shoot yourself in the foot. Laughing at our own imperfections is the adult equivalent of showing off our boo-boos as a kid. (Astrow: What is this G-spot? I’ve looked and looked for mine and I can’t find it. However, I did find an earring I’d lost….Poundstone: I sleep up to 20 hours a day. I figure in four hours I can’t screw up too much. And if I have to parallel park, that only leaves an hour to kill….Rudner: I rationalize shopping. I buy a dress to get change for gum.)

“I think self-deprecating or at least self-directed humor is the most therapeutic of all,” says Dr. Mindess. (Interesting that studies show it’s also women’s favorite kind.) “It allows us to see and accept ourselves as we really are. For though we make fun of ourselves for being stupid or lazy or klutzy, by laughing about those flaws, what we’re really saying is we’re lovable nonetheless.”

In fact, there’s evidence that jesting about one’s inadequacies increases self-esteem. How? Suggests one expert, “The jest makes the inadequacies themselves appear laughable.” Whatever the mechanism, try it, you’ll like it. Or should we say, try it, you’ll like you.

How laughter helps your health

You’ll like yourself even better if you’re feeling great, and a little lightheartedness helps here, too.

Helps your heart, for instance. Mirthful laughter gives your heart a workout, causing it to pump faster. This, in turn, sends fresh oxygen and nutrients coursing through your arteries. Blood pressure increases somewhat while you’re laughing, but then decreases significantly for a brief period after you stop. “Bringing blood pressure down below their normal levels is especially important for people with hypertension,” says William F. Fry, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School. “The more often you laugh, the more benefit you get.”

A good yuk also has a positive effect on your respiratory system. “Due to increased lung activity, you breathe out residual air laden with carbon dioxide and expel water vapor that can otherwise encourage bacterial growth,” says Dr. Fry.

And you already know the relaxing effect on your muscular system: “Recall a time you were carrying a heavy piece of furniture when someone cracked a joke,” says Dr. Goodman. “Chances are you had to put it down because you no longer had the muscle tension to hold it. That’s a graphic example of how laughter causes muscles to relax.”

Finally, new research by Lee S. Berk, D.H.Sc., and colleagues at Loma Linda University in California shows that several of the body’s major “stressor” hormones, such as adrenaline, decrease with humor-associated (as opposed to, say, nervous) laughter. “You don’t want these substances around in excess amounts for long because they can raise blood pressure or depress the immune system,” says Dr. Berk, assistant research professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. Although the design of their study enabled them to prove only that the beneficial effects of laughter last at least half an hour, “it seems to work much like exercise: With optimal conditioning, the benefits carry over.”

You should now be motivated to read and put into practice the funny-making tips below. (Poundstone: I thought evolution meant animals got rid of their traits that got them killed off. For years, farmers have been feeding pigs before slaughtering them. You’d think pigs would now say, “You know, I just couldn’t take another bite, thanks.”) But if you still need more convincing, consider funnyman Fred Allen’s wisdom, “It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down and spreads to your hips.”

How to Bring Out Your Funny Side

When it comes to making spontaneous funny comments, remembering jokes and telling them, women rate themselves lower than men, according to a study at De Paul University in Chicago. They also make more disclaimers, such as “I’m not good at telling jokes” and “This isn’t all that funny.” The reason: “Women have been socialized to believe that men make jokes, women laugh at them,” says Jacqueline Taylor, Ph.D., associate professor of communication. “But the idea that women aren’t funny is a myth. If we believe it, we help make it true.”

Don’t. Instead, believe another study that shows that the more people practice being funny (they were writing cartoon captions), the funnier they become. Here, pointers from the pros:

  1. Think of your favorite comedian, whether a stand-up comic, an author or someone in your own life. Then, when you’re under stress, ask yourself how that person would see the situation, what he or she would do.
  2. Pretend you’re Allen Funt and that what’s going on around you is part of a Candid Camera episode. Deliberately look for the silly side of life. “When you look for humor,” says Dr. Goodman, “it finds you.”
  3. Dare to be imperfect. Steve Allen, Jr., M.D., son of the comedian and humor consultant to health organizations and industry, teaches his audience to juggle. With scarves. Which float slowly through the air, giving you plenty of time to snag them. The most important step: The “guilt-free drop,” where you intentionally let one hit the floor. Keep it in mind the next time you have trouble keeping all the balls in the air.
  4. Let your mind wander. Humor is about making unconscious connections, says Emily Levine, then consciously remembering them.
  5. Write down three things you hate about yourself. Now start ranting and raving about them. When something you think is funny comes out, try it on a friend. “If she laughs, add it to your repertoire,” says Judy Carter. (For more tips, see her forthcoming book, Stand-Up Comedy for Everyone.)
  6. Take your show on the road. Don’t assume you’re not funny because the people around you aren’t laughing. Maybe it’s them. One way to start appreciating your wacky side is to surround yourself with others who appreciate it.

*Originally published in Self, September 1988.