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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Lighten Up! Humor is FUNdamental to Good Health

Jan 31, 2010 08:03PM
by Paul McGhee

We all have a natural health and healing system within our body that is our biological inheritance, but which too many of us have forgotten how to use. It is our innate sense of humor.

Strong scientific evidence in multiple fields of research now supports the view that humor plays a significant role in sustaining health. Humor’s many benefits to a great extent hinge on its ability to generate in us positive emotions, even substituting a positive for a negative state in the presence of stress. A general agreement in the broad field of psychoneuroimmunology (studying the interaction between psychological processes and the body’s nervous and immune systems) is that emotion, and its underlying physical changes in the body, is the key to understanding the link between mind and body when it comes to health.

The earliest modern research on humor and health, from the 1980s and 90s, first showed that a good dose of humor works to strengthen the immune system and reduce pain. Results of 30 to 40 studies consistently demonstrate such benefits.

A common claim for the reduced pain associated with humor and laughter attributes it to the production of endorphins (one of the body’s built-in pain reducers), yet only one study in the past 25 years supports this notion. The noted reduction in pain may rather be due to the known muscle relaxation effect that results from humor and laughter, or to humor’s power to mentally distract us from the source of pain.

One exciting new finding is how humor contributes to good cardiac health. More than a decade ago, a study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology showed that humor is heart-healthy, even if one has already experienced a heart attack. In the study, patients who had suffered heart attacks were randomly assigned to either a standard cardiac rehab program or the program plus the viewing of a comedy video, three times a week for a year at the rehab site. During the year, the comedy video group had suffered fewer additional heart attacks and fewer episodes of cardiac arrhythmia. They also had significantly lower blood pressure than the control group.

Another recent study in the peer review journal, Heart, may provide an explanation for humor’s reported boost to cardiac health. Here, researchers found that watching a comedy video significantly increased the diameter of a major artery in the arm (vasodilation), while watching a stress-inducing film reduced the diameter of the artery (vasoconstriction). This constrictive effect in response to stress is well established, and is known to result in increased blood pressure.

This relaxation effect at the arterial level, in response to humor, is consistent with the muscle relaxation effect that mounting evidence also associates with humor. Muscle relaxation is the key goal of all stress management techniques, because it generally leads to the easing of psychological tensions. Concurrently, several studies, published in such journals as The Journal of Rheumatology and The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, now also have documented a reduced level of stress hormones circulating in the blood of study participants in response to humor.

The latest research on the relationship of humor to health, underway in Japan, is now extending humor’s benefits to relief of specific diseases. While less well-established than the findings relative to pain and the immune system, several humor-related studies published in The Journal of Rheumatology, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Journal of Psychosomatic Research and The Journal of the American Medical Association have demonstrated significant contributions to health or well-being in cases of diabetes, certain skin sensitivities, arthritis, asthma and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (one European study to date).

Many cancer patients claim that their sense of humor has helped keep them alive, while plenty of evidence points to humor as a powerful tool in helping cancer patients and others cope with serious illness and other highly stressful life circumstances. In one large Norwegian study of individuals diagnosed with cancer, those with a stronger sense of humor (as measured by a standardized sense-of-humor test) also had a 70 percent higher survival rate than others over the following seven years.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that in healthy individuals, watching a one-hour humorous video also increases the number and activity of the natural killer cells that seek out and destroy tumor cells and also help fight off the latest cold and flu viruses and other foreign organisms.

While humor and laughter are not a substitute for a physician’s or practitioner’s care, findings show that they do help. A developed sense of humor, let loose to play, assures that our body and mind, supported by positive emotions, are at work on our behalf, helping to sustain good health and wellness.

Paul McGhee, Ph.D., president of The Laughter Remedy, in Wilmington, DE, is internationally known for his own humor research; for supporting references and detailed discussion of humor/health issues, see Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health, released this month via Also visit

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