Lara K Ronan M.D.

The Neurobiology of Wellness

Humor Is Beneficial, Except When It Isn’t

Humor may be the best medicine, but there could be risks if women administer it.

Posted Jan 14, 2019

The Washington Post published Jena McGregor’s article this weekend describing possible bias against the use of humor in the workplace by women in leadership. The article describes a forthcoming study authored by Jan Evans in the Journal of Applied Psychology which tested the perception of participants who watched men and women, who posed as a hypothetical retail manager, delivering a script designed specifically to be humorous or straight. The results reportedly show that the “humorous” scripted men were described by the participants as having higher status than the unfunny men, but the opposite was true for the “humorous” women who were more likely to be viewed as less capable leaders. While this study was performed in an artificial, experimental context, the results are discouraging for women who hope to lighten the mood at work. The researchers suggest that the use of humor in the workplace may be detrimental to women leaders due to societal stereotypes. An implication of the study might be that men telling the same jokes as women were truly funnier, or that funny is societally more laudable for men. Either way, the study highlights that techniques to improve workplace wellness may not uniformly be successful, unless utilized thoughtfully. 

Groucho Marx

It has been scientific dogma for several decades that laughter and humor decrease the risks of stress-related disease. The field of Psychoneuroimmunology that has emerged since the 1970’s has shown that emotion-mind-body relationships have profound effects on the immune system and our general health. Examples of the harmful effects of stress include an increase of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine that raise blood pressure, quicken the pulse, and affect brain function. Various authors have reported increased risks of heart disease, blood clots, pain syndromes, headaches, and autoimmune conditions due to exposure to stress. The workplace is a fairly typical cauldron of stress for many people.

Lee S. Berk published several early studies on the influence of humor on the hypothalamic-pituitary axis that regulates hormones and the sympathetic nervous system that regulates autonomic reactivity to threat. Since then laughter has repeatedly been shown to decrease cortisol and epinephrine levels, and to increase activity in dopamine regulated brain regions involved in reward systems. Humor also has been shown to increase the production of antibodies and endorphins boosting the body’s immune system and natural pain control system.

A variety of research has been published on the effects of laughter on the nervous system specifically. A review by Wild and colleagues summarizes the research attempting to localize the source of laughter in the brain and posited that the expression of laughter seems to depend on two partially independent neuronal pathways. The first is an “involuntary” or “emotionally driven” system, involving the limbic system including the amygdala, thalamic/hypo- and subthalamic areas and the dorsal/tegmental brainstem. This limbic circuit deep in the brain is intimately responsible for the production of emotion. The second, “voluntary” system originates in the brain’s frontal lobes, in the premotor/frontal opercular areas, and projects to the motor cortex area and to the pyramidal tract that carry motor information to the ventral brainstem. The laughter response appears to be coordinated by a laughter-coordinating center in the dorsal upper pons. This pathway may have an evolutionary role as the brainstem has a role in alertness and attention.

A recent study by Fujiwara found that listening to a prepared recording of laughter for 20 minutes after experiencing a stress-inducing protocol mimicking daily life was associated with decreases in heart-rate variability measurements that reflect autonomic nervous system reactivity, compared to having the participants simply rest for 20 minutes. Hearing laughter increased parasympathetic nervous system tone. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system has the effect of inducing a sense of relaxation, and is the opposite of the “Fight or flight” response of activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The authors emphasize that hearing laughter has potential to decrease perceptions and physiologic effects of stress in occupational settings.

Humor and laughter are known to have beneficial effects on one’s mood and sense of well-being. Anyone can attest that laughter just makes us feel good. Our mood is improved and we sense that the world is a kinder place when we laugh. We need look no farther than a laughing baby video for evidence of that effect.

Certainly not all types of humor are advisable in the workplace. Jokes that demean others, make light of others’ suffering, call out negative stereotypes, are disparaging to others, or make others uncomfortable are best avoided, especially by those in leadership. But more effective types of humor, the self-deprecating type, humor that is uplifting, or that accentuates the absurd and triggers laughter can have real physiologic effects that improve mood and decrease stress. Humor additionally has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase participation and motivation.

The workplace is often, if not usually, a source of stress. Mitigation of stress is critical to a sense of well-being and optimal functioning. The constructive use of humor would seem to be a win-win for leaders and workers alike, but studies such as the Evans research discussed in the Washington Post article referred to above suggest that nothing is straightforward when it comes to human interactions, and relationships. Stereotypes and gender perceptions in the workplace may actually degrade the usefulness of this potentially therapeutic medium if not practiced carefully. The importance of Evans’ study is to highlight that not unlike other therapies, there may be an ideal context and titration of humor. That society may perceive the use of humor differently for men and women in leadership is unfortunate, as there is certainly no shortage of stress in life.


1.       McGregor, J. “Funny” may hurt women at work. The Washington Post. Jan 13, 2019

2.       Savage BM, Lujan HL, Thipparthi RR, DiCarlo SE. Humor, laughter, learning, and health! A brief review. Adv Physiol Educ. 41:341-7. 2017

3.       Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, Eby WC. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci. 298: 390-96. 1989

4.     Wild B, Rodden FA, Grodd W, Ruch W. Neural correlates of laughter and humour.

Brain.Oct;126(Pt 10):2121-38. 2003

5.       Fujiwara Y, Okamura H. hearing laughter improves the recovery process of the autonomic nervous system after a stress-loading task: a randomized controlled trial. BioPsychoSocial Medicine. 12:22. 2018