Humor and Laughter Reduce Pain

A man went to his doctor complaining of painful headaches.  After concluding his tests, the doctor said, “There’s only one solution, but it’s extreme: castration.”  The patient said he could never do that and he walked out.

As the weeks went on, his headaches got so bad that he couldn’t take it any longer.  He went back to the doctor and agreed to the castration.  The operation was a success and the patient couldn’t believe that his headaches were finally gone.  He felt like a new man.  He was so excited about his new life that he went to a tailor and bought a whole new set of clothes—suits, shirts, socks, coats . . . even underwear.

In jotting down all the appropriate information, the tailor finally asked, “What size underwear do you wear?”

“Forty,” replied the man.

“Oh no,” said the tailor.  “You’re a 44.  If you wear underwear that  tight, you’ll get terrible headaches!”

There have been endless articles in the mass media about whether humor really is good medicine (we’ve heard the statement “Laughter is the best medicine” for many years).  Twenty years ago, many of these articles and television reports made claims about humor’s impact on health that had no foundation in research.  As recently as 10 years ago, I have even heard physicians say things about humor and health that have no foundation in research.  They made these statements because they had been repeated so often in the media that they were assumed to be true.  This website will provide a series of articles in the months and years ahead which will inform you of just what the research says about what humor and a good belly laugh can do for your health.  My own background includes 20 years conducing basic research on humor and laughter.  I will not make a statement at this website which lacks a foundation in research.  We’ll start out with a summary of what is known about humor’s impact on pain.

For the past 25 years there has been a steadily growing popular movement that I call the “humor and health movement.”  The impetus for this movement came from the widespread influence of Norman Cousins’ 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness.  Cousins was suffering from a debilitating form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis.  He was in constant pain as a result of this condition.  He and his doctors were aware of the research documenting the fact that negative emotion can increase pain, so they thought, “Why shouldn’t the opposite be true, as well?”  If you do things to generate positive emotion in yourself, maybe this will reduce the pain.  So he checked himself out of the hospital and into a nearby hotel.  With a nurse present full time to monitor his condition, he invited friends over and watched a lot of comedy videos; these included Marx Brothers films, old Candid Camera shows, and other shows that he personally found very funny.

He and his friends laughed a lot while watching these shows, and Cousins noticed right away that he began experiencing less pain during and after viewing them.  Someone monitored the time actually spent laughing, and Cousins reported that just 10 minutes of belly laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep.  This may not sound impressive to you, but if you’re in constant pain, the effect is a striking one.

As the reports of this pain-reducing effect of humor and laughter became more and more widely known (because of the popularity of his book), researchers in the early 1980s began testing this idea in laboratory settings.  Over 30 studies have now obtained support for Cousins’ initial observation.  Supporting evidence has been obtained in both experimental settings (where pain is actually induced initially, followed by a determination of humor’s ability to reduce that pain) and among individuals suffering from chronic pain from a broad range of conditions.  So this is one claim about humor and health you can consider well established.

There is no agreement among researchers, however, on the reason for humor’s pain-reducing effect.  Most newspaper articles discussing this topic over the past two decades have matter-of-factly attributed the pain reduction to endorphins—one of the body’s own built-in pain killers.  The only problem is that for two decades, there was no published research documenting this.  It was an assumption made by Cousins’ doctors in the 1970s, and people simply kept repeating it as if it were a fact.  Recently, however, one published article has shown increased endorphin production in response to humor/laughter, so there is now some support for this.  But there are also a couple of studies that failed to show that humor increases endorphin levels.  So the jury is still out on this—even though there is no doubt about the pain-reduction effect.

It should also be noted that we don’t know yet whether this pain-reduction is really due to the mental/emotional experience of humor or to the physical act of laughter.  They occur together, obviously, and it is difficult to sort out which is really responsible for the reduced pain.  As we shall see in future articles here, this same issue comes up when discussing any other health benefit established for humor.

Another good candidate for explaining humor’s pain-reducing power is the muscle relaxation effect that occurs with laughter.  (Certain muscles relax when you laugh whether you want them to or not; that’s why we fall back in our chair when we’re laughing hard.   It is also why young children fall down and roll on the floor when they’re laughing hard.)  This will be discussed in a future article.

And, of course, humor is very good at mentally distracting us from the source of both physical and emotional pain.  There is every reason to thing that the basic neurological pain-channeling mechanisms are influenced by this distracting power of humor.

If you’re someone who suffers from chronic pain, you probably really don’t care why humor and laughter reduce pain.  The important thing is that it works.  Groucho Marx noted this pain-reducing effect of humor long ago.  He said, “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, along with the research references which document the positive impact of humor and laughter on pain, see my recent book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health.