Health & Fitness | November 18, 2022 2:00 pm

Want to Live Longer? Embrace Your Inner Goofball.

Longevity starts with levity, people

The crying laughing emoji against a blue background.
Take yourself too seriously, and your physical condition could get serious, fast.
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Modern Family aired its last episode in April 2020, but in the fictional universe where Phil Dunphy still exists, it’s easy to picture TV’s most harmless dork-dad living a lengthy life.

Why is that? It’s not like he’s a fitness freak. He cares more about mastering magic than yoga (though he’s not great at either). But as Phil is the picture of levity — a devoted day-to-day humorist who will stop at nothing to make life lighter for those around him — he also has untapped potential for longevity. While those pranks and hijinks sometimes put Phil’s body in harm’s way, they likely convey lasting health benefits for his brain.

As Big Think contends in a recent profile, “Being funny is possibly one of the best things you can do for your health.” And peaking to The New York Times, Stanford lecturer Naomi Bagdonas agrees: “Levity is a mind-set. It’s looking for reasons to be delighted rather than disappointed in the world around you.”

That spells good and bad news for les misérables among us. Bad news first: a lifetime of stiff-arming silliness probably hasn’t done you any favors. Humor (and more broadly, levity), is an unmatched tool for settling our supercharged fight or flight systems, which tend to turn on when we don’t need them — think dinner table debates, shitty commutes, a long line at the grocery store, etc. Tapping into a relaxed state during these micro-battles helps us dodge chronic stress and protect ourselves from depressive episodes or heart conditions down the line.

The good news, though? It’s never too late to embrace your inner goofball. A well-timed quip can diffuse a Thanksgiving argument before it torpedoes the entire evening, while focusing on the zany choices in someone’s grocery cart might help you get through a mind-melting wait. (The other day I watched a grandma buy only a cantaloupe and a box of Milanos. That made me happy.)

These are examples of relief theory (a way to “blow off psychological steam”) and incongruity theory (finding humor that “subverts expectations”), and both are extremely useful for recruiting humor as a tool, whenever you feel yourself losing control.

But let’s not forget that levity, in the tradition of Phil Dunphy, also functions as a fantastic base setting. Of the four “types” of humor — affiliative, self-enhancing, aggressive and self-deprecating — life is simply better when we’re actively and consistently engaging with the first two. While the last two (mocking others, mocking yourself) can be funny, they have a time and place. Bradley Cooper breaks into tears in an episode of the Smartless podcast, remembering a time in his younger days where his primary mode of humor was ripping on people whose respect he desperately craved. Others, meanwhile, can fall into a lifetime of going down the other avenue, relying on a verbal form of self-mutilation for chuckles.

Affiliative, though, is the sort of humor than brings people together. And self-enhancing is an approach predicated on finding the fun and funny around every street corner. These are hard mental states to engage with for some, sure, but then so is meditation, and millions of people are already trying to get better at that.

If your life is already oriented around humor, congratulations. You’ve likely benefitted from that fact: laughter encourages positive shifts in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, while humorous people have better self-esteem, more friends and more fruitful careers. You’re also going to live longer than your peers. Studies have confirmed that a humorous life is a longer one.

On the flip side, if this all sounds overwhelming, take a deep breath. Read something funny. And know that the nation’s top schools are on the case, trying to figure out how to make you funnier. (Seriously.)