We have all heard the cliché: Laughter is the best medicine. So are comedians the longest-lived among us? Do people whose business is humor and laughter thrive and stay healthy? Should we seek a jolly good time in order to avoid cancer, heart disease, and diabetes?
Some gurus certainly think so. You can go to laugh therapy, humor-and-health conferences, and of course the endless variants of the party scene. We hear lots and lots of pop advice that positive emotion is the secret: Just make yourself happy and you will be healthy, wealthy and wise. Sounds like magic, and it is.
Fortunately, understanding the problem with society’s "don’t worry, be happy" approach can lead us to more effective and beneficial approaches. The confusion arises from the well-documented strong correlation between happiness and health. People who say they are happy and that they feel good are indeed generally healthier, but their happiness is not causing their health.
Millennia ago, the biblical proverbs taught that "a merry heart does good like a medicine" (Proverbs 17:22). The ancient Greeks knew that too much choler (the anger caused by "yellow bile"), too much melancholy (the sadness supposedly caused by "black bile"), too much blood, or too much phlegmatic apathy was a sign of poor mental and physical health. And so physicians for generations prescribed exsanguination, emetics, enemas, and other lovely interventions. Usually, the individuals who were losing their "excess" blood to blood-sucking leeches, vomiting their guts out, or pooping their brains out were not very happy, but probably many of their neighbors got a good laugh.
One of the problems in this area of research on psychology and health is that studies often ask people about their feelings and then ask these people about their health. They find that people who say they have cheerful, agreeable personalities and joyful lives filled with positive emotions also report high levels of life satisfaction, emotional thriving, and health. I find these studies very funny. But from a scientific point of view, these studies—full of tautologies—have little to say about achieving health.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no good evidence that laughing a lot or cultivating cheerful thinking will mobilize your immune system and cause tumors to shrink, your clogged arteries to open, or your blood sugar to drop, thereby increasing health and longevity. And there is no good evidence that comedians live very long lives. In fact, when you think about comedians you know, you see why the issue is really much more complicated than it first appears. On the other hand, people who optimistically strive and persevere to follow their doctors’ orders, increase their physical activity in daily living, and reach out to be involved meaningfully with others in their lives do indeed often benefit from a myriad of factors that lead to better health.
But what about all the little studies that show that laughter gets your heart beating and increases your oxygen intake, that regular joyful meditation decreases your blood pressure, and that happy people have better biomarkers in their blood? These are all bits and pieces of a larger assumed model of psychology and health, which usually goes unstated. Where is the long term, controlled study of people engaging in these patterns earlier in life and then showing the direct biological and health consequences later in life? Where are the experimental studies showing laughter beats chemotherapy in treating cancer, or that psychotherapy for stress beats angioplasty and medications for treating heart disease?
In my work on the Longevity Project, we have been studying over 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have evaluated how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: who lives long, healthy, and thriving lives, and why? We then confirm the results by examining other studies. We have good information on how cheery and partying these people were throughout the 20th century, as well as tremendous detail about other aspects of their lives that lead to the thriving trajectory of health and accomplishment that many of us would like to achieve. There are definitely pathways to health (or to disease) but cultivating positive emotions for emotions’ sake is not one of them. Rather, those who thrive and stay healthy are those who are conscientious and well-organized, very active in their daily lives, and heavily involved with family, friends, and community. They do lead joyful lives (even if they never visit a comedy club) but the joy, like the good health, is a result of these more basic patterns.
Some comedians do live especially long lives. Bob Hope, the rich and famous star of vaudeville, films, and TV, and lead entertainer of American military troops, lived to the age of 100. George Burns, the star of stage, screen, radio, TV and comedy clubs, also lived in good health to age 100 and was buried with three of his trademark cigars. They were the exceptions. Although very funny, they were hard-driven, well-organized, well-connected with many friends, extremely wealthy, and endlessly persevering. Not too many people die laughing, but then again, not too many people are saved by laughter either.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Copyright © 2013 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.
Photograph of Ellen DeGeneres by Alan Light via Wikimedia Commons from flickr.com/photos/alan-light/210467067.