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As part of the initial intake process for the day program, we have started asking caregivers the following question: “What makes your loved one laugh, or what made them laugh in the past?” Some might think that this is an odd question, but forging strong relationships with our clients (and caregivers) is integral to our purpose at McCormick Dementia Services. If staff members know what might make a new client laugh, it could help build a trusting relationship. Indeed, social psychology research shows that laughing with others tends to create the sense of a shared world-view, and can contribute to relationship building. The literature suggests that laughter taps into the core of who we are as a social species, enabling us to express what cannot be put into words and strengthens bonds between us.

Comedian John Cleese would appear to agree, as he once said, “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter.” In addition to enhancing our social relationships, laughter can lead to beneficial changes in our individual biological systems. Research has shown that laughter can decrease the amount of stress hormones in our system (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), and increase the concentration of dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. Dopamine can enhance learning, motivation and attention, and endorphins trigger feelings of pleasure – something sure we can all use more of during this pandemic! Oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘empathy’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone, enhances prosocial behaviour, increases relaxation and trust, and helps to decrease anxiety. Laughter can enhance immune function and increase infection-fighting antibodies. A good chuckle can increase blood flow to vital organs, and even burn calories!

Laughter may come a little easier to us these days; summer is here, and we are hearing hopeful news in regard to COVID-19 numbers and increased access to vaccines. However, life will never be without its challenges. It may be helpful to reflect on what makes you laugh in preparation for days when laughter — our natural relationship-building, pain-killing, relaxation-inducing phenomenon — may not flow spontaneously. What makes you laugh? Hearing babies belly-laugh for the first time? Watching silly cat videos? Watching clips of I Love Lucy or The Muppet Show? Reminiscing about past escapades with an old friend? It might be a good idea to share these ideas with friends and family members so they can help you connect with laughter during difficult times. Research also shows that hearing others laugh can trigger genuine fits of laughter, and even ‘pretending’ to laugh – simulated laughter – can be almost as beneficial as the real thing! So, it would seem that research concurs with Lord Byron’s suggestion to “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.”

Submitted by Social Work Staff at McCormick Dementia Services.

Dimensions Newsletter Summer 2021