“The chemicals that are running our body and our brain are the same chemicals that are involved in emotion. And that says to me that . . . we’d better pay more attention to emotions with respect to health.” (Candace Pert, PhD, former Chief of Brain Biochemistry, National Institutes of Health)
You’ve probably heard the media reports about humor and good health for 10-20 years now—although the number of such reports on television and radio and in print media has dropped in recent years because it’s all been covered so many times. And yet there are exciting new findings to report, so this article will bring you up to date in summarizing the new wave of research on how humor contributes to good health and physical well-being. All of this research is discussed in detail in my new book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health (references to the research are included for those who want to document the evidence).
The First Wave of Research
In the 1980s and 1990s, three main discoveries were made, namely that humor 1) strengthens your immune system, 2) reduces pain and 3) reduces the level of stress hormones circulating in the blood. These findings have been discussed for years and are now old news.
The Second Wave
A second wave of research (I call it a wave because it is a major new thrust of research) has focused on the impact of humor (and its accompanying laughter; the relative contribution of humor vs. laughter to health is not yet known) upon specific disease conditions. Most of this research has been going on in Japan over the past 8 years, so the general public (and nearly every physician you speak to) is unaware of these exciting new developments.
1) Heart Disease
We now have evidence that humor contributes to healthy cardiac function—both in individuals who have and have not suffered heart attacks. A steady diet of comedy videos has even been shown to reduce blood pressure among those who have had a heart attack. One important cause of this health benefit appears to be the fact that experiencing humor leads to dilation of the endothelial lining of arteries in the body. Reduced levels of catecholamines and inflammatory cytokines also contribute to improved heart function.
Extended belly laughter is a well known trigger of asthma attacks—especially in children—but mild forms of humor (with more limited laughter) actually improve breathing among asthmatics. This ties in with other research showing that mild positive emotion improves breathing while negative emotion (especially strong) worsens breathing.
Patients with COPD have difficulty expelling air from their lungs when exhaling, so residual air tends to build up in the lungs. This becomes increasingly uncomfortable—and painful—as residual air builds up in the lungs. Again, mild humor and laughter have been shown to improve this breathing issue for patients, although hearty belly laughter worsens it. So with both asthma and COPD, mild humor (and laughter) is where the health benefit lies. This improved ability to more fully exhale air seems to be due to underlying physiological changes occurring with the shift to a more positive emotional state.
4) Rheumatoid Arthritis
Heightened stress is known to worsen joint symptoms (mainly swelling and pain) in RA patients, so having an effective tool (such as humor) that helps manage stress should help manage these symptoms. Even as little as a one-hour exposure to a funny humor program among RA patients has been found to reduce the level of a pro-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin 6) known to be associated with tissue destruction. Levels of growth hormone (which plays a role in swelling and pain) are also reduced.
5) Skin Allergies
Humor has also been found to help some kinds of allergic skin response—e.g., in patients with certain types of dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). Atopic (meaning it’s probably hereditary) eczema patients suffer from frequent bacterial infections—including those from Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Watching funny videos daily for one week has been shown to be sufficient to reduce colonies of these bacteria on the skin—even when no form of medication or other treatment is provided. This improvement appears to be due to humor’s impact on a key protein secreted from the sweat glands and to a boost in anti-microbial immunity mediated via the sweat glands.
There is no evidence that humor can play a role in preventing diabetes, but multiple studies have shown that it can help manage the condition. Humor reduces the level of blood glucose “in the presence of insufficient glucose action. Exposure to humor has no impact of blood glucose levels of non-diabetics, but does support glucose utilization among diabetics. Again, this is important in view of the fact that stress and negative emotion tend to increase blood glucose levels among diabetics.
The Importance of Learning to Manage your Daily Emotional State
There is evidence that stress and negative emotion have a worsening effect on a broad range of health conditions. This means that possessing good coping tools for dealing with the stress in one’s daily life is essential to sustaining good physical health—as well as for maintaining emotional resilience—in the long run. Humor provides one effective tool (among others) for supporting physical and emotional well-being . . . and it NOT TOO LATE to improve your sense of humor to get these benefits into your own life. Other articles at this website focus on my 7 Humor Habits Program, whose effectiveness in boosting your sense of humor and both reducing stress/negative emotion and boosting positive emotion/life satisfaction has been documented in 5 countries. See other articles at this website for details about this humor intervention program, published in Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World: The 7 Humor Habits Program.