“Nothing to me feels as good as laughing incredibly hard.” – Steve Carrell

In my Notes App, I have a list titled “Laughing.” I created the page my senior year of high school as running documentation of the things that make me double over, gasp for breath and cry elephant tears of laughter. My list is a gift that keeps on giving: a reminder of all the times I’ve experienced the purest form of joy, felt that glorious pain in my abdominals and lost all sense of reality beyond whatever particular situation struck me funny. When I’m down, or even just in the mood for a chuckle, I open the app and peruse through my humorous peaks of life.

The other day, while my friends sat on the couch in our apartment, I scrolled through my list and landed on one to narrate. 

“Oh yeah, that time in Denny's!” I exclaimed. This was a gem of a story that I’d since forgotten. “That was one hundred percent the hardest time I’ve ever laughed,” I told my friends. I say that about most things on my list, but that time in Denny’s — the 24-hour diner chain with a unique array of breakfast, seafood and American dishes, none of which are completely mastered — is definitely a top two moment. 

I was there one night around 1 a.m. with a few of my friends after a high school football game. The specials menu was already at our table, sporting Denny’s most recent and fresh additions. The cover image, a platter of chocolate spheres of dough, captured our attention. We oohed and aahed. Chocolate chips melted within gourmet pastries with chocolate sauces intricately drizzled atop them. “Choco Puppies,” the menu read. Sold. 

“We’ll have the Choco Puppies, please,” I told the waitress while ordering.  

Upon their arrival, silence descended upon our table. In front of us sat two minuscule, crusted and cold chunks of what looked like literal fecal matter. A singular line of dried-up chocolate sauce graced a fraction of the right chunk. We couldn’t contain ourselves  after looking at the Choco Puppies, the menu and then each other. Our laughter erupted throughout the restaurant. Sprawled out over the booth at Denny’s, we gasped for air, held our stomachs and pounded the table. 

Back on my apartment’s couch, my friends and I laughed as well. “Tell another!” they said. Ah, laughter: the gift that keeps on giving.  

… 

Above all else, laughter heals my spirit every time without fail. It’s the medicine of all medicines, pick me up of all pick me ups, a remedy for my soul more effective than any meditation, yoga class or prayer. It’s there on the darkest days and ever-present on the brightest. It’s free and it’s easy and it never ever runs out. I feed my soul by laughing. Due to my love for the activity, I think I laugh more than the average person. Like fresh juice from an orange, I’m keen to squeeze the humor out of any situation.

But why does this simple action heal my spirit and give me a dose of euphoria that can’t be found anywhere else?

According to University of Michigan professor Nansook Park, an expert in positive psychology, there’s a definite scientific explanation as to why laughing feels so good. 

“When we laugh, physically, it decreases the stress hormone, cortisol,” Park said. “Laughing out loud protects our hearts and relaxes our muscles by increasing blood flow. Also, it triggers the release of endorphins, natural feel-good chemicals, which reduce pain and boost our mood.” 

In an email interview with The Daily, Dina Gohar, another U-M professor in the field of positive psychology, explained it this way: “Laughing forces air out of the lungs and causes us to take deep inward breaths, which increases the flow of oxygen in the body and helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” she wrote. 

Gohar also discussed substantial proof of laughter’s long-term health benefits. 

“Laughter's ability to counteract the negative effects of stress may be why those who laugh more may also live longer and experience fewer heart attacks as well as less sickness since they enjoy better immunity,” she explained. “A 2016 15-year Norwegian study found that women with strong senses of humor lived longer than others. In fact, they were 73% less likely to die from heart disease and 83% less likely to die from infection.” 

So that deep belly laugh actually is powerful medicine.

Both professors also emphasized how laughter promotes social bonding. “Laughter is a social emotion, and research suggests we’re about 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of other people, especially those we are close with and like than when we’re alone,” Dr. Gohar said. Professor Park had similar ideas. 

“When we feel good, we are more willing to open our hearts and broaden our perspectives,” Park said. “When we laugh together it’s even better. It brings people and teams closer and strengthens the bonds between people through shared positive experience.” 

It seems that laughter is also a social tool, as it makes us feel connected to those around us.  

Personally, I believe the crux of laughter’s beauty is its ability to brighten any situation, no matter how dire, depressing or upsetting. In fact, I think finding humor in the depressing, attempting to make light of the grim, is essential for making it through the lows of life. In the saddest of situations, just the stringing together of a couple of witty words can make someone laugh and smile as well as lift their spirits. For example, a solid joke from my roommate about the salmon I burnt in the air fryer makes up for the fact that we’re completely out of luck for dinner. As Dr. Gohar explained, “The ability to laugh, whether at life itself, yourself, or a good joke, is a source of life satisfaction and resilience. Substantial evidence exists for the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism. Studies involving combat veterans (Hendin & Haas, 1984), cancer patients (Carver, 1993) and surgical patients (Culver et al., 2002) have found that when humor is used to reduce the threatening nature of stressful situations, it is associated with resilience and the capacity to tolerate stress (Martin, 2003).”

This information is certainly applicable to this year, which has been notoriously difficult and disheartening. Nothing is certain or reliable, due both to the current political climate and implications of the pandemic. For me, and almost all other students, the college experience I’ve longed for is completely out of the picture. With life as we currently know it, we can’t go to classes and form relationships with our peers and professors. 

Our basketball team is dominating, yet we must watch from our separate television screens instead of together in the stands of Crisler Arena. A majority of freshmen aren’t in the residence halls: We’re spread out throughout Ann Arbor or at home, navigating our first winter without the community and support we probably need. And as for coping, options are limited. Yoga and pilates classes are few and far between, mostly on screens like everything else. The gyms have spiratically been open due to county lockdowns, and many in-person group religious services are not happening. It’s difficult to gather or connect with others, and for many, virtual therapy or counseling can present unique challenges

It seems that the best medicine that’s reliably available right now is laughter. In fact, sitcoms like “The Office” and “Friends” have skyrocketed in popularity. I personally try to find a laugh wherever I can. I laugh as my friends and I dissect our prior nights, I laugh as we relay the bizarre events of our Zooms and breakout rooms. I laugh at our meal that was left at the very end of the driveway by the delivery man, cackle about the time I tumbled down the stairs in front of incoming guests, chuckle every time I open my refrigerator to the old soup that’s been sitting in its Tupperware since my roommates ate it in January. We laugh together as we analyze life, people and all that we’re experiencing, as well as a story from my list from time to time. 

Whether it’s the large laughs from infamous stories like the Choco Puppies fiasco, or the smaller laughs from comments, witty remarks and snowballing convos where each addition to the discussion adds a new level of hysteria, they all come together to make my days here more cheerful and the current circumstances bearable. While this pandemic has prevented me from continuing to do a lot of the activities I normally do, I’m certainly continuing to add to my “Laughing” list. I aim for that deep belly laugh, that medicine of all medicines and joy of all joys. 

Maybe one day soon I’ll secure one of those limited spots for a yoga class. But for now, I’ll tend to my spirit on my couch, with the help of my friends and a large dose of laughter.