One of the myths that exists about the importance of humor in our lives is that it contributes to physical and mental health. This is embodied in our culture with phrases such as "Laughter is the best medicine". While there are quite a few studies that show the importance of humor for our mental health, findings regarding the influence of humor and laughter on our physical health are scarce.
One common misconception is that humor leads to a longer life, but in fact, there are no studies supporting this notion. In contrast, the few studies that do exist show that people who are considered to be funny actually suffer more health problems and die at a younger age. For example, one longitudinal study, the Terman life-cycle study, followed a large number of highly gifted individuals (average IQ of 151!) over many decades, and found that those who were rated as having a better sense of humor as children by their parents and teachers were more likely to suffer from many health problems later in life. They tended to smoke more and consume more alcohol as adults and also died at a younger age, as compared to those with less humor.
These findings are consistent with previous research showing that individuals with a greater sense of humor tend to engage in less healthy lifestyle behaviors. For example, a longitudinal study among Finnish police officers found that higher scores on some sense of humor scales were associated with greater obesity, increased smoking, and greater risk factors for cardiovascular disease, compared with their peers with lower scores.
Of course, it is difficult to establish a causal link between humor in childhood and poor health many years later, but at the very least, we can say that no positive connection between humor and longevity has been found. A plausible explanation for the findings is that because of their generally less serious perspective, cheerful people with a good sense of humor tend to view health risks less seriously, not take care of themselves very well, and generally live unhealthy lives, compared to the less cheerful individuals. Good humored people might engage in more risky behaviors, smoke and drink, and just neglect themselves more, compared to others. If you feel good about yourself, you might ignore warning signs or symptoms of various diseases, and not go to the doctor to get checked. All this could lead to possible health problems in the future.
Other studies on comedians and other humor writers found a similar pattern. The idea behind such studies is that if humor contributes to physical health, what better than to examine the link among people whose whole lives are devoted to humor? One such study found that comedians and humor writers, as well as serious entertainers and writers, died younger than individuals who achieved fame in other areas, as documented in the obituaries of Time and Newsweek magazines.
Of course, as with the longitudinal studies, there is not necessarily a causal link between being a comedian and dying young. It is possible that entertainers, such as comedians, live a more intense life and are exposed to stress and other risks that could shorten their lives. Stand-up comedy is a profession with a low level of job security. The competition is very stiff and there is no way to know in advance how funny people would perceive you in the future. This can be very stressful and could lead stand-up comedians to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle of smoking and drug use that could be detrimental to their health. There are many examples of comedians who have died as a result of drug abuse, such as John Belushi and Chris Farley.
A recent new study extends these findings to other entertainers and athletes. The study looked at a thousand obituaries published every day for three years in the New York Times. The researchers classified the various occupations of the people into different categories. Singers, actors, comedians and dancers were classified as “performers”, while writers, composers, painters and photographers were grouped under “non-performing creative workers”. There were also other classifications such as athletes, business people, politicians, academics and military personnel.
The study included a more men than women (813 vs. 186). The average age of death for men was 80.35, compared with 78.8 of the women. This finding is interesting because women tend to live longer than men on average. However, there were no major differences in causes of death among men and women.
The main findings were that performers died the youngest, at an average age of 77.1, followed by athletes with an average age of death of 77.2. Next were the non-performing creative workers with the average death age of 78.5. Academics died at an average age of 81.7, while politicians, business people and people with military careers had the longest life span, dying at ages 82.1, 83.3 and 84.7 respectively. In general, most young people had died from accidents or infections. Performers and creative people tended to die of cancer at higher rates than other famous people.
It is important to notice that the average age of death for men in the U.S. is 75.6 and for women is 80.8. This means that on average, athletes, artists, etc. still live longer than the average person. But we should remember that most people in the study come from higher socioeconomic status, so they have access to the best health care possible. It would be interesting to conduct more accurate comparisons between the current sample and other wealthy people who are not famous and see if there are still differences between the two groups.
The fact that men lived longer than women in this study is largely explained by the fact that female athletes were overrepresented in the sample. Because athletes die at a younger age compared to other famous people, women's average age of death was younger. One possible explanation for the relatively short life expectancy of athletes is that being a professional athlete nowadays is not the healthiest thing to do. The competitiveness involved in professional sports can cause high level of stress, which by itself is not very healthy. Other risk factors may include the use of performance enhancing drugs, injuries and also the long-term effects of concussions in some sports. Another explanation for the relatively shorter life of professional athletes is what happens after they retire. Athletes have relatively short careers compared to other professions and reach their peak early in their lives. Life after retirement could be quite frustrating without the thrills of the game and the fame that accompanies it. This might lead to more depression, drug and alcohol addictions, and even bankruptcy - all have adverse effects on health.
As mentioned earlier, many comedians and other people in show business are addicted to drugs or alcohol, but even the use of recreational drugs can damage their health. Many creative people use drugs such as marijuana to try to be more creative. It might not be that harmful as the more addictive drugs, but even recreational drug use can lead to negative effects on health.
The studies reviewed here suggest that being creative and famous might not always lead to positive outcomes. One evolutionary explanation for the fact that creative and famous people die relatively young is that from an evolutionary perspective, long term survivorship is not so important, as long as you reproduce many healthy offspring. Evolution is all about reproduction, and death is just a byproduct. Famous and creative people, such as comedians and athletes, tend to have many sexual partners, often leading to a large number of children (or would have led, during the critical period of evolution when humans lived as hunter-gatherers and contraception did not exist). As long as you can reproduce quickly at an early age, evolution doesn’t care if you die young.