By Peter Doskoch, published on July 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
While the humor-is-healthy viewpoint has finally gained scientific respectability, now humor's therapeutic limits become defined and its weaknesses understood. That may sound like a glum take on a cheerful subject, but it's not. For the better we understand when laughter is useful, the more effectively we can deploy it—something we can all be happy about.
Laughter is such an intrinsic part of our lives that we sometimes forget how very odd it is. Despite the development of newfangled imaging machines like MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists still have little idea what's happening in our brain when we laugh. Certainly the brain stem plays a role. People who've suffered strokes in this primitive brain region have been known to have prolonged bouts of pathological laughter. And some anencephalic infants—babies born missing their higher brain circuitry—will, when tickled, make faces that appear to be smiles or laughs, again implicating the primitive brain.
But laughing in response to something funny also calls on more sophisticated brain functions. One brain study in humor research looked at the electrical activity that occurs as we chuckle, giggle, or guffaw. About four-tenths of a second after we hear the punch line of a joke—but before we laugh—a wave of electricity sweeps through the cortex, reports Peter Derks, professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary.
What Derks finds most significant about this wave is that it carpets our entire cerebral cortex, rather than just one region. So all or most of our higher brain may play a role in laughter, Derks suggests, perhaps with the left hemisphere working on the joke's verbal content while the analytic right hemisphere attempts to figure out the incongruity that lies at the heart of much humor.
That laughter is a full-cortex experience is only fitting considering the wide-ranging effects it has on us psychologically and physiologically. Perhaps the most obvious effect of laughter is on our mood. After all, with even the most intellectual brands of humor, laughter is ultimately an expression of emotion—joy, surprise, nervousness, amusement. More than a decade of research has begun unraveling the details of the laughter-mood connection:
All of this makes sense in light of laughter's numerous physiological effects. "After you laugh, you go into a relaxed state," explains John Morreall, president of HUMORWORKS Seminars in Tampa, Florida. "Your blood pressure and heart rate drop below normal, so you feel profoundly relaxed. Laughter also indirectly stimulates endorphins, the brain's natural painkillers."
In addition to its biological effects, laughter may also improve our mood through social means. Telling a joke, particularly one that illuminates a shared experience or problem, increases our sense of "belonging and social cohesion," says Richman. He believes that by psychologically connecting us to others, laughter counteracts "feelings of alienation, a major factor in depression and suicide."
Some of laughter's other psychological effects are less obvious. For one thing, says Morreall, it helps us think more creatively. "Humor loosens up the mental gears. It encourages out-of-the-ordinary ways of looking at things."
Humor guru William Fry, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University, takes this idea one step further. "Creativity and humor are identical," he contends. "They both involve bringing together two items which do not have an obvious connection, and creating a relationship."
Finally, humor helps us contend with the unthinkable—our mortality. Lefcourt recently found that people's willingness to sign the organ donor consent on their driver's license rises with their tendency to laugh. "Very few people are ready to think, even for a moment, about death," he says. "But those who have a sense of humor are more able to cope with the idea."
The idea that laughter promotes good health first received widespread attention through Norman Cousins's 1979 best-seller, Anatomy of an Illness. But centuries earlier, astute observers had ascribed physical benefits to humor. Thomas Sydenham, a seventeenth-century British physician, once observed: "The arrival of a good clown into a village does more for its health than 20 asses laden with drugs."
Today, scientific belief in laughter's effects on health rest largely on the shoulders of Lee Berk and Stanley Tan, both of the Loma Linda School of Medicine, in Loma Linda, California. Laughter, they find, sharpens most of the instruments in our immune system's tool kit. It activates T lymphocytes and natural killer cells, both of which help destroy invading microorganisms. Laughter also increases production of immunity-boosting gamma interferon and speeds up the production of new immune cells. And it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken the immune response.
Meanwhile, studies by Lefcourt and others have found that levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody secreted in saliva to protect against respiratory invaders, drops during stress—but it drops far less in people who score high on a humor scale.
While these findings suggest how laughter might benefit our health, nobody has yet proven that these immune effects translate into faster healing, because humor's impact on actual recovery has never been scientifically confirmed.
Now that we know what laughter can do, it's important to recognize when it's most effective. Here are some things to keep in mind to live life happily ever laughter.
Humor may help some people more than others.
There's one problem with nearly all the research that links humor and mood; it's what scientists call "correlational." The fact that two things happen at the same time doesn't mean one caused the other. So if folks with a strong sense of humor are less affected by stress, "it doesn't mean laughing is what's helping them cope," says Martin. Rather, it could be that if they're coping well, they can laugh a lot.
In Martin's view, by adulthood our sense of humor has essentially reached its final form: And for those of us whose internal humor settings are on the low side, he believes laughter may not help as much. For example, in one study, participants' levels of immunoglobulin A increased when they viewed humorous videos. But they rose most in people whose tendency to laugh was greatest to begin with. So the serious and sober among us may benefit less from laughter.
Others dispute this idea, asserting that humor is an equal-opportunity life-enhancer. "Anybody who has normal mental development can engage in and benefit from humor," insists Morreall. "All they have to do is put themselves in this more playful state of mind. We have to give ourselves permission to do something we did very easily when we were three years old."
Martin, though, remains unconvinced. "My sense is that research hasn't been as successful as people had hoped. It seems to be pretty hard to teach someone to change their sense of humor." Nonetheless, if you're a natural humor powerhouse, laughter's force may be especially at your command.
Control and choice may enhance laughter's benefits.
Numerous studies show that psychological and physical health improve when people feel a sense of control in their lives, whether over their jobs, future, relationships, or even their medical treatment. Laughter's benefits may have a similar origin, suggests Morreall.
"When we're stressed, we often feel like we have no control of the situation," he says. "We feel helpless. But when we laugh, at least in our minds, we assume some control. We feel able to handle it."
One implication of this is that the more control people have over the type of humor to which they're exposed, the more they may benefit from it. At least one study bears this out. When patients recovering from surgery at a Florida hospital were allowed to choose the humorous movies they saw, they required less painkillers than a control group that saw no movies. But a third set of patients, force-fed comedies that may not have been to their liking, did worst of all.
Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Humor is intensely personal. Jim Carrey's comedy has little in common with Woody Allen's. "To harness laughter's benefits, it's essential that each person is matched to his or her favorite brand of humor," says Lefcourt. Often, that's remarkably difficult, even for folks close to you. "I'm sometimes very surprised at what people I know find funny," he says.
In the long run, conscientiousness may outperform laughter as a health aid.
Even if laughter proves to aid recovery, it may not be an asset in the long run, contends Howard Friedman, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside. Friedman and colleagues have been following the fates of the "Termites," a group of 1,528 11-year-olds that the legendary psychologist Louis Terman began studying in 1921. Terman asked teachers and parents to assess various personality traits of his preteen subjects. Friedman's team found that individuals judged as being cheerful and having a good sense of humor as children have been dying sooner than their less jovial classmates.
The reason, he thinks, is that cheerful people may pay less attention to threats to their physical and psychological well-being. "In the short term, I think it is helpful to be optimistic about a particular illness," says Friedman. But the same good-natured attitude that helps us laugh off the threat of illness ("I'm going to be just fine") may work against us when we're presented with the opportunity to eat unhealthy foods or light up a cigarette.
In fact, the only personality trait that consistently increased longevity among the Termites, Friedman says, was conscientiousness, possibly because folks with this trait are more likely to avoid hazardous behaviors. So laugh all you like—but temper it with a bit of caution.
While laughter may not be a panacea, there's still much to be gained from it. And, truth be told, there's room for plenty of additional chortles in our lives: Fry found that by the time the average kid reaches kindergarten, he or she is laughing some 300 times each day. Compare that to the typical adult, whom Martin recently found laughs a paltry 17 times a day. (Men and women laugh equally often, Martin adds, but at different things.)
Fortunately, if you're attracted by the idea of using laughter to improve your spirit and health, chances are you've already got a good sense of humor. Meaning, of course, that you're just the type of person who might benefit from what Fry calls "prophylactic humor"—laughter as preventive medicine.
For people who want to inoculate themselves with laughter, Fry recommends this two-step process.
First, figure out your humor profile. Listen to yourself for a few days and see what makes you laugh out loud. Be honest with yourself; don't affect a taste for sophisticated French farces if your heartiest guffaws come from watching Moe, Larry, and Curly.
Next, use your comic profile to start building your own humor library: books, magazines, videos, what have you. If possible, set aside a portion of your bedroom or den as a "humor corner" to house your collection. Then, when life gets you down, don't hesitate to visit. Even a few minutes of laughter, says Fry, will provide some value.
"We're teaching people a skill that they can use when, say, deadline pressures are getting close," explains nurse/ clown Patty Wooten, author of Compassionate Laughter (Commune-a-Key) and president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.
"The deadline will remain, but by taking time out to laugh, you adjust your mood, your physiology, your immune system. And then you go back to work and face what you have to do."