Humor and Laughter Strengthen Your Immune System

[Adapted from Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health, by Paul McGhee.   References to the research discussed here may be found in that book.]

“The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease.”    Voltaire

A managed care consultant dies and goes to Heaven. Frankly, he can’t believe his good fortune in being there, given the life he has led.  But St. Peter checks the records and says, “There’s no mistake, you’re supposed to be here.  See, it says right here that you are scheduled for Heaven…and you’re authorized for three days.”

Physicians and researchers have long known that stress weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.  Only in the mid-1980s, however, did researchers begin to study the positive impact of humor and laughter on the immune system.  Your sense of humor provides a powerful antidote to immunosuppressive effects of stress in two ways: through 1) indirect effects resulting from humor’s ability to help you cope on the tough days (minimizing or eliminating the negative impact of stress on the immune system), and 2) direct positive effects upon the immune system.  In this article, we’ll focus only on the direct immunoenhancement effects of humor.

Dozens of studies have now examined the impact of humor and laughter on the immune system.  While some of these studies failed to show a positive effect, most have shown that that humor does strengthen several different components of the immune system.  This research has looked at both humoral (immunoglobulins) and cellular immunity.  In the case of the former, the great majority of the studies have focused on immunoglobulin A (IgA).  IgA resides in the mucosal areas of the body and helps protect you against upper respiratory infections like colds and flu.  Most of these studies have shown significant increases in concentrations of IgA in response to comedy programs designed to produce a lot of laughter.

In my seminars in both corporate and healthcare settings, I have often had people come up to me afterwards and share an experience that is consistent with these immune system findings.  They note that they often get sick when dealing with a marital problem or unusually high job stress (most jobs have some degree of stress these days), or after getting some form of really bad news.  When they are emotionally distressed, their immune system simply doesn’t do as good a job at fighting of the source of illness.  When all is going well, they don’t get sick as often.

While the impact of humor on IgA has received the greatest amount of attention among researchers (it is cheaper to do, since salivary IgA can be tested; this avoids the need to do expensive immunoassays on blood), several studies have now documented that humor increases both the number of and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells.  This finding is especially important for cancer patients, since NK cells seek out and destroy tumor (cancer) cells (they also destroy virally infected cells, even with no prior exposure).  This is one reason why oncology units of hospitals are now so interested in the “therapeutic benefits” of humor.  While humor and laughter are clearly not a “magic bullet” capable of curing cancer, they do create a set of conditions within the body which help mobilize the body’s own built-in healing resources.  Just as negative emotion (especially when chronic) can interfere with the body’s immune response, positive emotion—especially a powerful source such as humor and laughter—facilitates the response.

It is important to note that this finding has been obtained for children, as well as adults.  In one study, for example, elementary school children who scored higher on a measure of the extent to which they used humor to cope had higher levels of (salivary) IgA and a lower frequency of different kinds of infections.  As the level of cancer-related stress increased for these children, the high-coping-humor kids were significantly less likely than the low-coping–humor kids to come down with infections.  This reduced infection finding is especially important to note, since it suggests that the immunoenhancement effect of humor is strong enough to help sustain other aspects of health and wellness as these children and their doctors battle the cancer.

            There’s no evidence that humor and laughter add years to your life, but they      certainly add life to your years.

There are few sources of stress in life greater than the words, “You have cancer.”  The first Sunday (or week) of June is generally celebrated across the country as National Cancer Survivors Day.  I am always somewhere in the country doing a program on this day for cancer patients and their families.  And there are always several people who come up to me afterwards and say, “You know, you’re absolutely right; if it weren’t for my sense of humor, I would not have survived the treatments, let alone the disease.  Finding things to laugh at was what got me through my ordeal, one day at a time.”  So you get a double bonus from humor; your body is assisted in battling the disease at the same time that you’re helped through the emotional struggle to cope.

At one Survivors Day Celebration, a woman came up to me after my program and said that she had been battling brain cancer for quite a number of years.  Her doctors were dumbfounded that she was still alive, given the nature of the cancer she had.  She told me she was convinced that it was because she always made it a point to find things to laugh at every day—no matter how she felt that day.  While her story has to be considered an anecdote, and not research evidence, I have come across enough examples like hers to convince me that—at least in some cases—using humor to sustain a strong upbeat, positive frame of mind that is full of hope and optimism is enough to extend survival where a negative, hopeless, pessimistic outlook would have doomed the patient to death. 

The next article on Physical Health will provide further discussion of the positive impact of humor and laughter on the immune system.