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HOL-emblem Humor Therapy

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Humor and Health
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

"The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease." (Voltaire)

[Adapted from Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, 1999. Call 800-228-0810 to order, or see www.LaughterRemedy.com.]

Voltaire (and your grandmother) recognized long ago that humor and laughter are good for you. You've probably noticed yourself that you simply feel better after a good belly laugh. The problem, of course, is that your sense of humor generally abandons you right when you need it the most--on the tough days. But if you manage to bring your sense of humor to your daily conflicts on your job, your relationship with your spouse and children, and your health or financial problems, you'll go a long way toward improving the quality of your life; and you'll boost your physical health and well-being in the ways discussed here.

Psychoneuroimmunology and Humor

Every year, there is more evidence that your thoughts, moods, emotions, and belief system have a fundamental impact on the body’s basic health and healing mechanisms. Much of that evidence is discussed here at holisticonline.com.

Whether or not you get sick depends on your body’s ability to fight off infection and disease. In 1980 (prior to the discovery of the AIDS virus), the departing editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, estimated that 85% of all human illnesses are curable by the body’s own healing system. We now know that building a positive focus in your life plays an important role in supporting the body's ability to do this.

The body’s healing system responds favorably to positive attitudes, thoughts, moods, and emotions (e.g., to love, hope, optimism, caring, intimacy, joy, laughter, and humor), and negatively to negative ones (hate, hopelessness, pessimism, indifference, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc.). So you want to organize your life to maintain as positive a focus as possible.

Emotion: The Key to the Mind’s Influence on Health

Candace Pert noted in Bill Moyers’ Healing and the Mind television series (and more recently in her book, The Molecules of Emotion) that emotions--registered and stored in the body in the form of chemical messages--are the best candidates for the key to the health connection between mind and body. It is through the emotions you experience in connection with your thoughts and daily attitudes--actually, through the neurochemical changes that accompany these emotions--that your mind acquires the power to influence whether you get sick or remain well.

The key, according to Pert, is found in complex molecules called neuropeptides. Peptides are found throughout the body, including the brain and immune system. These neuropeptides are the means by which all cells in the body communicate with each other. This includes brain-to-brain messages, brain-to-body messages, body-to-body messages, and body-to-brain messages.

Individual cells, including brain cells, immune cells, and other body cells, have receptor sites that receive neuropeptides. The kinds of neuropeptides available to cells are constantly changing, reflecting variations in your emotions throughout the day. The exact combinations of neuropeptides released during different emotional states has not yet been determined. The kind and number of emotion-linked neuropeptides available at receptor sites of cells influence your probability of staying well or getting sick. Building more humor and laughter in your life helps assure that these chemical messages are working for you, not against you.

"The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion. And that says to me that . . . we’d better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health." (Candace Pert)

There is no longer any doubt that your daily mood or frame of mind makes a significant contribution to your health--especially when it persists day after day, year after year. Anything you can do to sustain a more positive, upbeat frame of mind in dealing with the daily hassles and problems in your life contributes to your physical health at the same time that it helps you cope with stress and be more effective on the job. Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.

How Humor Contributes to Health

The mere fact that you feel better after a good laugh is enough for many to conclude that humor must be good for you. But new evidence confirms what our grandparents knew all along. Your sense of humor not only enriches life; it also promotes physical, mental and spiritual health.

Muscle Relaxation

Research has shown that muscle relaxation results from a good belly laugh. One study even showed that people using a biofeedback apparatus were able to relax muscles more quickly after watching funny cartoons than after looking at beautiful scenery. You can see this effect in your own laughter, if you look for it. In my keynote addresses, I have a routine in which I get everyone in the room doing belly laughter for half a minute. Afterwards, I ask them what changes they notice in their bodies. The first comment is usually, "I feel a lot more relaxed." The next time you have a good long laugh, look for this feeling of relaxation and reduced tension.

Reduction of Stress Hormones

When you’re under stress, your body undergoes a series of hormonal and other body changes which make up the "fight or flight" response. Even though there’s no physical threat to your life, your body reacts as if there were. If you’re under stress day after day, this preparation for a vigorous physical response (which never occurs) itself begins to pose a threat--to your health! Anything which reduces the level of stress hormones in the blood on a regular basis helps reduce this health threat.

"There ain’t much fun in medicine, but there’s a heck of a lot of medicine in fun." (Josh Billings)

The limited research on stress-related hormones and humor has shown that laughter reduces at least four neuroendocrine hormones associated with the stress response, including epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone. This is consistent with research showing that various relaxation procedures reduce stress hormones.

Immune System Enhancement

It has long been recognized that stress weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Only in the mid 1980s, however, did researchers begin to study the impact of humor and laughter on the immune system. The best evidence that humor boosts the immune system comes from studies where immune system measures are taken before and after a particular humorous event--usually a comedy video. But research showing that individuals with a better sense of humor have stronger immune systems is also significant, since it shows the importance (for your health) of making the effort to improve your sense of humor.


The greatest amount of research to date has focused on immunoglobulin A, a part of your immune system which serves to protect you against upper respiratory problems, like colds and the flu. Our saliva contains IgA, and this is often referred to as the body’s first line of defense against upper respiratory viral and bacterial infections. Several studies have shown that watching as little as 30 or 60 minutes of a comedy video is enough to increase both salivary IgA and blood levels of IgA. This has been shown for both adults and children.

Immunoglobulins M and G have also been shown to be enhanced as a result of humor/laughter. Laughter even increases levels of a substance called Complement 3, which helps antibodies pierce through defective or infected cells in order to destroy them.

Cellular Immunity

Several different aspects of the cellular immune system have also been shown to be enhanced by watching a comedy video. B cells are produced in the bone marrow, and are responsible for making the immunoglobulins. If you count the number of these cells in the blood before and after a comedy video, you can demonstrate a significant increase in the number of B cells circulating throughout the body following humor.

Watching a one-hour humorous video also increases the activity--and number--of natural killer cells, the number and level of activation of helper T-cells, and the ratio of helper to suppresser T-cells. Natural killer cells have the role of seeking out and destroying tumor cells in the body, as well as battling the latest cold- and flu-generating viruses and other foreign organisms.

Humor has also been shown to increase levels of gamma interferon, a complex substance that plays an important role in the maturation of B cells, the growth of cytotoxic T cells, and the activation of NK cells. It also tells different components of the immune system when to become more active, and regulates the level of cooperation between cells of the immune system.

Taken as a whole, it’s clear that there is something about humor and laughter that causes the immune system to "turn on" metabolically and do more effectively what it is designed to do--promote health and wellness in the face of internal or external threats.

Duration of Humor-Induced Immuno-enhancement

Only a few studies have examined the duration of the immuno-enhancement effects of humor. This may be an artificial question, since emotional changes are known to cause fluctuations in the immune system, and your emotional state generally depends on whether or not you’re dealing with anything stressful at the moment. If something happens to make you angry or anxious soon after watching a comedy video, this counteracts the immune benefits resulting from the video. This is where the strength of your own sense of humor comes in. If you are able to find a light side of the situation, you sustain the immunoenhancing benefits resulting from the humor you’ve been exposed to.

The limited research along these lines suggests that a strengthened immune system is sustained for 30 minutes for IgA, IgG, number of B cells, activation and number of T cells, activation and number of natural killer cells, and gamma-interferon. The immunoenhancement effect was still present 12 hours later for IgA, IgG, number of B cells, complement 3 and gamma-interferon. No attempt has been made to study durations beyond 12 hours.

Sense of Humor and Immunity

Given all the evidence that watching a humorous video strengthens different components of the immune system, it makes sense that individuals who have a better developed sense of humor--meaning that they find more humor in their everyday life, seek out humor more often, laugh more, etc.--should have a stronger immune system, because they get more of the kinds of benefits offered by watching a comedy video by exercising their sense of humor more often. Consistent with this expectation, three studies have shown that individuals with higher scores on a sense of humor test have higher "baseline levels" of IgA.

"The simple truth is that happy people generally don’t get sick."
(Bernie Siegel, M.D.)

Humor’s ability to protect you against immunosuppression during stress was evident in a study which compared people with a well-developed sense of humor (they found a lot of humor in their everyday life or frequently used humor to cope with stress) to people with a poor sense of humor. Among those who rarely found humor in their own lives, especially when under stress, greater numbers of everyday hassles and negative life events were associated with greater suppression of their immune system (IgA). Among those with a well-developed sense of humor, on the other hand, everyday hassles and problems did not weaken the immune system. Their sense of humor helped keep them from becoming more vulnerable to illness when under stress.

Pain Reduction

Norman Cousins drew the attention of the medical community to the pain-reducing power of humor in his book Anatomy of an Illness. This spinal disease left him in almost constant pain. But he quickly discovered while watching comedy films that belly laughter eased his pain. In his last book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, he noted that 10 minutes of belly laughter (just counting the laughing time) would give him two hours of pain-free sleep. Over a dozen studies have now documented that humor does have the power to reduce pain in many patients.

"Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully." (Max Eastman)

Many patients discover this in their own experience. Rheumatoid arthritis patients who report more chronic pain, for example, also say they look for humor more often in everyday life. They’ve learned that humor helps manage their pain. Consistent with this idea, one study showed that when elderly residents of a long-term care facility watched funny movies, the level of pain they experienced was reduced.

In a study of 35 patients in a rehabilitation hospital, 74% agreed with the statement, "Sometimes laughing works as well as a pain pill." The patients had such conditions as traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, arthritis, limb amputations, and a range of other neurological or musculoskeletal disorders.

"A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast." (Groucho Marx)

For those who do experience pain reduction following laughter, why does it occur? One possibility is distraction. Humor draws attention away from the source of discomfort--at least momentarily. The most commonly given explanation, however, is that laughter causes the production of endorphins, one of the body’s natural pain killers. This explanation makes good sense, but as of 1999, no one has been able to demonstrate it with data. Investigators who have tried to show the endorphin-humor connection have failed to do so.

Regardless of whether laughter does or does not cause the release of endorphins into the blood stream, its ability to reduce pain is undoubtedly partly due to its reduction of muscle tension. Even brief relaxation procedures have been shown to reduce pain--both in laboratory and clinical settings. Many pain centers around the country now use meditation and other relaxation techniques to reduce the level of pain medication needed by patients. Laughter is just one additional technique for achieving the same effect.

Other Benefits

Laughter also provides an excellent source of cardiac exercise. The next time you’re having a good belly laugh, put your hand over your heart when you stop laughing. You’ll see that your heart is racing, even after 15-20 seconds of laughter. It will remain elevated for 3-5 minutes. This has caused some to refer to laughter as "internal jogging." You can give your heart a good workout several times a day, just by laughing. One physician noted that his patients who say they laugh regularly have lower resting heart rates. While this is no substitute for real exercise, many seniors and bed-ridden patients don’t have the option of other forms of physical exercise. For them, laughter is FUNdamental to good cardiac conditioning.

Other physical health benefits may result from humor and laughter, but scientists have been very slow in looking for them. Laughter may turn out, for example, to help lower blood pressure. As your heart beats more rapidly during laughter, it pumps more blood through your system, producing the familiar flushed cheeks. Not surprisingly, blood pressure increases during laughter, with larger increases corresponding to more intense and longer-lasting laughs. If this were a lasting increase, it might be harmful. When laughter stops, however, blood pressure drops back down to its baseline. Given the relaxation effect of laughter, laughter may help bring blood pressure levels below one's baseline. At this point, however, researchers have made little effort to examine this possibility.

Laughter triggers a peculiar respiratory pattern which offers health benefits for certain individuals. In normal relaxed breathing, there is a balance between the amount of air you take in and breathe out. The problem is that when you are not breathing deeply, a considerable amount of residual air remains in the lungs. When you’re under stress, breathing becomes even shallower and more rapid, reducing the amount of oxygen taken in and producing a still greater amount of residual air. This breathing also occurs more from the chest, instead of the diaphragm. (Relaxation techniques emphasize the importance of breathing from the diaphragm.) As this residual air stays in the lungs for longer periods of time, its oxygen content drops and the level of water vapor and carbon dioxide increases. The health risk here arises for individuals prone to respiratory difficulties, since the increased water vapor creates a more favorable environment for bacterial growth and pulmonary infection.

Frequent belly laughter reduces this risk by emptying your lungs of more of the air that’s taken in. When you laugh, you push air out of your lungs until you can’t push out any more. Then you take a deep breath and start the same process all over again. Each time you laugh, you get rid of the excess carbon dioxide and water vapor that’s building up and replace it with oxygen-rich air.

Hospitalized patients with respiratory problems are often encouraged to breathe deeply and exhale fully, but nurses have difficulty getting them to do so. Most patients enjoy a good laugh, though, so many nurses have learned to tell them a joke from time to time or give them a comedy tape to view.

Emphysema and other respiratory patients often have a build-up of phlegm or mucous in their respiratory tracts. Nurses try to get them to cough to loosen up and expel these substances, but they generally don’t enjoy coughing, so the phlegm builds up. When they laugh, however, they inevitably start coughing, producing exactly the effect the nurses want--and the patients have a good time in the process.

Do People with a Good Sense of Humor Get Sick Less Often?

We have seen that humor and laughter positively influence our body in ways that should sustain health, but little research has been done on whether a better sense of humor actually helps keep you from getting sick. However, since people with a better sense of humor have higher IgA levels, and since research has shown that those with higher levels of salivary IgA are less likely to get colds or be infected with Streptococcus, humor should reduce the frequency of colds.

The only study to directly examine this question found that the impact of one’s sense of humor upon colds depends on the kind of sense of humor you have. It was only individuals whose sense of humor took the form of seeking out and appreciating humor who had fewer and less severe colds/flu than their low humor counterparts. Surprisingly, those whose sense of humor took the form of initiating humor more often did not have fewer or less severe colds/flu. The researchers argued that being a person who likes to tell jokes or otherwise initiate humor takes them into more frequent contact with other people, which serves to expose them to infectious agents more often, robbing them of the advantage that a more active sense of humor otherwise offers. Obviously, more research is required to clear up this confusing picture.

The importance of active use of one’s sense of humor in producing humor’s health benefits was confirmed in another study in an unusual way. It found that among a group of mothers with newborn infants, those who actively used humor to cope with the stress in their lives had fewer upper respiratory infections--and their infants also had fewer infections. This seemed to be because these mothers had higher levels of immunoglobulin A in their breast milk. Consistent with this finding, another study showed that mothers with low levels of IgA at the time of birth had babies who showed more illnesses in the first six weeks postpartum. So breast-feeding mothers now have all the more reason to build plenty of laughter in their life every day.

Among adults, if we look at bodily symptoms alone, independent of any diagnosed illness, there is some evidence that individuals who have more negative reactions to humor (finding a lot of different types of humor aversive or objectionable) report more bodily symptoms and complaints. Students complaining of cardiovascular symptoms and gastroenterological symptoms also have been shown to have this more negative reaction to humor.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) has long been linked to the so-called Type A personality. One pair of researchers observed over 25 years ago that only type B individuals use humor as a coping tool in dealing with stress and hostile feelings. Hostile humor has also been found to be the main kind of humor enjoyed by Type A patients, while Type B patients enjoy non-hostile as well as hostile humor. This is consistent with the findings showing a close relationship between hostility and heart disease. While laughter at hostile humor must provide some of the benefits described above for CHD-prone individuals, those benefits are clearly not enough to offset the bodily effects caused by hostility to begin with. Developing non-hostile aspects of one’s sense of humor to counteract this effect is essential for Type A individuals.

Learning to Use Humor to Cope with Stress

The biggest obstacle to obtaining these benefits of humor in your own life is the growing stress on your job and in your personal relationships--and perhaps the fact that you've never made an effort to develop a good sense of humor. Humor is well-documented to be a powerful tool in coping with life stress, but how do you go about developing this skill if you don't already have it?

I have developed a hands-on Humor Skills Training Program which shows you how to develop the basic foundation skills you need in order to use humor as a coping tool. The skill development program is presented in my book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Use the phone number at the beginning of this article to order the book. I have also provided detailed guidelines on developing humor skills in the monthly article I write at my web site, www.LaughterRemedy.com. Click on "Humor Your Tumor" once in the site to find a series of articles on improving your humor skills.

[NOTE: To obtain the original references for the research discussed here, or to obtain more information on the physical and mental health benefits of humor, see Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System.]

Paul McGhee, PhD, is currently president of The Laughter Remedy, in Montclair, New Jersey. He is internationally known for his research on humor, and has published 11 books on humor. He now works full time as a professional speaker providing programs to hospitals and corporations on the benefits of humor, giving special attention to how humor helps cope with stress and sustain peak performance and quality of service or care on the tough days. To arrange for a program for you group, contact him at 973-783-8383. You can also contact him through his web site at www.LaughterRemedy.com.

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