How does Humor Promote a Healthy Heart?

References for the research discussed here (and all other humor and health research discussed at this website) are presented in McGhee, P.  (2010).  Humor: The  Lighter Path to Resilience and Health.  Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.]

The previous article on humor and health documented that humor and laughter do support good cardiac health—both among people in good heart health and those who have already suffered a heart attack.  Four different explanations have been offered for how humor does this.

By Reducing Stress-Linked Cardiovascular Reactivity.  We have known for years that the anger, tension and anxiety that generally go along with high stress have a negative impact on the heart, making a significant contribution to both CHD and hypertension (the first clue along these lines came from research in the 1970s documenting a link between the so-called “Type A” personality and coronary heart disease in subsequent years.  But humor has the power to overcome this link.  For example, cardiovascular reactivity (a combination of heart rate + blood pressure) increases in response to stress and negative emotion.  But humor (and probably positive emotion in general) reduces cardiovascular reactivity.  It restores a state of physiological equilibrium following negative emotion or stress.  At the subjective level, this reduced cardiovascular reactivity is experienced as a greater calmness and feeling more relaxed.

By Supporting a Healthy Inner Lining of Arteries.  Multiple studies have now documented that stress and negative emotion cause the endothelium of arteries to constrict, reducing its ability to expand when it needs to.  The mere act of watching a comedy video, however, dilates the inner lining of arteries.  This was established by research which first established a baseline of individuals’ artery diameter (using the brachial artery in the arm—commonly used in assessing blood pressure).  Subjects were then asked to watch segments of either a comedy movie or highly stressful scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan.  Amazingly, watching the stressful scenes significantly reduced the diameter of the artery, which watching comedy increased it.  So here we have evidence of a relaxation effect even at the level of the inner lining of arteries.

Words noticed on a trash bag on Virgin Airlines: “Virgin Recycling.”

Relaxation of the inner lining of arteries, then, (and the increased blood flow that results from this) may be one means by which humor and laughter help sustain a healthy heart.  This is consistent with the finding that humor and laughter cause muscle relaxation—and the easing of psychological tension in the process.  (This will be discussed in a future article.)  A direct result of this increased blood flow (associated with blood vessel dilation), of course, is lower blood pressure.  The cardiac risks associated with high blood pressure are well-established.

By Reducing Catecholamines and Inflammatory Cytokines.  There is some evidence that a daily diet of humor videos reduces levels of catecholamines (long known to have a harmful effect on the cardiovascular system) and inflammatory cytokines among diabetes patients, who are at high risk of heart problems.  If this benefit occurs among diabetes patients, it should occur among the rest of us, as well.

By Increasing HDL Cholesterol.  One study has (amazingly) demonstrated that humor and laughter increase high density lipoprotein (HDL)—the good kind of cholesterol.  The heart-protecting benefits of HDL are well known.

The importance of all four of these influences on cardiac health is well established.  The relative extent to which humor boosts each is not yet established, but the mere fact that humor and laughter do positively influence each contributor to a healthy heart should provide you with enough incentive to begin learning to use humor to cope with the stress in your life now.

This article may not be copied or reproduced without the permission of Paul McGhee.