The Real Secret to Serenity? A Sense of Humor

Mirth has about as many benefits as mindfulness—and may be its ideal companion.

Posted Oct 09, 2019

We hear a lot these days about the benefits of mindfulness—the practice of being present and observing your inner and outer experiences without passing judgment on them. Research tells us that mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhance school and work performance, and even make some of us more attractive as partners. Mindfulness has also been found to ameliorate symptoms of addiction and chronic pain. It may even help reduce paranoia (at least among white, female college students), blood pressure, and the propensity to overeat.

But there's a competitor to mindfulness that many people may overlook in their quest towards better physical and emotional well-being. And this competitor is something we've all been doing naturally since the first few months of our lives.

Equally compelling in its power to lower cortisol levels and other markers of the stress response, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve mood, and potentially improve substance misuse disorders and treatment outcomes for individuals with mental illness? Laughter. (And yes, laughter—especially the ability to make others laugh—can make you appear more attractive, too.)

Is it possible to find inner peace without losing your sense of humor? If you're game for doing a mini-experiment yourself, might I suggest a hilarious hybrid of mindfulness and humor that recently picked up my spirits even more than the weekly mindfulness meditation podcasts I tune into to help maintain my sanity? Dan Zevin's Very Modern Mantras: Daily Affirmations for Daily Aggravations was just what I needed to crack a smile and laugh off some stress. 

If you're reading this in an office setting, Mantra for an Open Plan Office might be the best place to start. In this brief meditation on the absurdities of communal workspaces, Zevin invites you to clear your mind and transport yourself to an open plan office. No walls, no barriers, no personal space whatsoever between you and the insufferable coworker next to you...

Or perhaps you're in need of some comic relief related to the frustrations of your smartphone. (Who isn't?) In Mantra for a Smartphone, Zevin invites us to mentally unlock our device with our fingerprint ID... pressing over and over and over because the fingerprint thing hasn't worked since we tried to update our operating system.

There's a funny meditation on the woes of GPS mishaps, the leagues of humanity crowding you out of Starbucks, and the endless and occasionally envy-inducing scrolls through Instagram we've all been sucked into. There's even a hysterical Mantra For The Gym: As you swing a rainbow-colored kettlebell, begins this guided visualization, experience a rush of endorphins in your energy center and a sharp stabbing sensation in your rotator cuff. See also: Modern mantras for public transportation, bad weddings, gluten intolerance, and houseguests who overstay their welcomes.

Read these modern mantras yourself or hear Zevin smoothly recite them, and see how you feel. At the very least, making time for laughter will help balance your more serious mindfulness pursuits, like listening to another of my go-to's: the ever soothing and often enlightening voice of Tara Brach (who also has a great bent for humor in many of her dharma talks). Or, if you're in the mood for something even more serious, consider doing some deep breathing to the background of om chanting—which itself has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure. Another great go-to is UCLA's free guided meditation series.

Whether you prefer the practice of mindfulness or the pursuit of humor instead, either can be an excellent route to boosting your well-being both instantly and over the long haul. In fact, laughter itself can even be considered its own form of mindfulness, inasmuch as when we laugh, we're more drawn into the present moment and more fully alive in our bodies and minds.

The good news is that the two are not mutually exclusive. And depending on the kind of day you're having—and the particular stressor(s) you need relief from—having both humor and traditional mindfulness practices on hand during hard times can add some fun to your arsenal of coping skills. 

Next time you find yourself overwhelmed, down, or struggling to feel motivated, consider centering your focus on something that's funny—and see how much better (or even grounded) doing this makes you feel.