One of the most popular beliefs regarding humor and laughter is that they are good for your health. There are many extraordinary claims regarding the health benefits associated with humor. Many people believe that humor and laughter can help you heal from almost any ailment from severe pain to heart diseases and even cancer. Other common perceptions are that humor helps boost your immune system, or that laughter provides similar benefits as physical exercise. So in short, humor and laughter are like a magical pill that can help you with any conceivable disease or illness from which you might suffer. Some of these claims gained popularity when Norman Cousins, suffering from a severe form of arthritis, claimed to have recovered from it by watching comedy films (especially the Marx Brothers). This is, of course, anecdotal evidence, and even Cousins himself downplayed the role of laugher in his recovery later in his life.
Most of the assertions about the health benefits of humor and laugher have limited scientific ground and are based on unfounded research. Humor could potentially help you with many ailments, but there is a dearth of good research to support the exaggerated claims. Most effects on health are short lived, and people sometimes confuse the enjoyment of humor with its health benefits. People believe that if you enjoy something, then it must be good for you, but unfortunately, that isn't necessarily true. There are a few good studies that show health benefits of humor, especially in relation to stress. Humor and laughter are good for reducing stress (at least temporarily), and less stress is associated with helping fight all sorts of adversities in life. Good comedy can also sometimes boost your immune system, but it does not seem to give any long term benefits.
Interestingly, another common notion that a humorous and positive outlook can have long term effects on your life is not supported by research. One longitudinal study, conducted by fellow blogger Howard Friedman, followed a large number of highly gifted individuals over many decades. The researchers found that those who were rated as having a higher sense of humor as children were more likely to smoke and consume alcohol as adults and died at a younger age as compared to those with less humor. These results suggest that, perhaps because of their generally less serious perspective, high humor individuals may view health risks less seriously and consequently engage in more risky behaviors (and also not go to the doctor as often as others).
Another study looked at the longevity of male comedians in comparison to other male entertainers. The results showed that there was no significant difference in life span of stand-up comedians and humor writers in comparison to other entertainers and serious writers. Moreover, comedians, humor writers and serious entertainers died younger, compared to people who achieved fame in other areas. 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. This stress could also lead them to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle, smoke, and use other illicit drugs that are detrimental to their health.
Nonetheless, the relationship between humor and health is worth studying because if we do find that humor carries health benefits, that would be great, right? The challenge is to conduct well designed studies which take into account possible confounding variables. One of the main things that needs to be accounted for is the separation of humor and laughter. If humor does have some analgesic effect, the question is, is it due to the cognitive enjoyment of the joke or is it because we laugh? Laughter releases endorphins in our brain and could hold the key for any health benefits. A recent study looked at exactly that.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments in which participants watched either a comedy movie or a serious documentary (one study was done under naturalistic conditions with live performers and audience). Subjects took a pain threshold test before and after watching the videos to see if their pain tolerance increased. You might wonder how you test for pain tolerance, and one way to do it is by putting your hand in a frozen vacuum cooler sleeve until you can't bear the pain anymore and have to take it out. The time you kept your hand in the sleeve is your pain tolerance score. The researchers recorded how much people laughed in response to the funny video, and also included a video that elicited a positive emotion but not laughter to control for the effect of laughter.
The results showed that overall, across all conditions, subjects who watched the comedy videos showed higher pain tolerance after watching it, compared to the non-humor condition. Interestingly, women showed somewhat stronger tolerance for pain, though not in all experimental conditions. The number of participants that watched the videos together did not affect the result, thus watching funny videos together had no impact on pain tolerance. This is quite interesting, since you might expect that watching funny movies in groups might increase the amount of laughter due to the well know contagious effect, but apparently this was not the case in this study.
In regard to the laughter itself, results showed that the presence of laughter increased pain tolerance, and subjects who laughed in response to a funny video could hold their hands in the frozen sleeve longer compared to the other subjects, who watched a video that elicited a positive emotion but not laughter. This is important, because it shows that positive emotions alone are not sufficient for elevating pain tolerance.
Lastly, many of the neutral conditions in this study, such as watching a documentary or a drama video, actually decreased the pain tolerance. This means that people's thresholds do not necessary stay constant all the time, and lack of humor and laughter might actually carry some potential drawbacks.