How Humor Contributes to Physical Health
The mere fact that you feel better after a good laugh is enough for many to conclude that humor must be good for you. But new evidence confirms what our grandparents knew all along. Your sense of humor not only enriches life; it also promotes physical, mental and spiritual health.
Stress management has become a multi-million dollar business in the United States and is rapidly growing in other countries. The Japanese, for example, are well acquainted with the harmful effects of stress. They have created a new word, karoshi, which means "death from overwork."
Many stress management techniques have been developed, including physical exercise, progressive relaxation, biofeedback, deep breathing, meditation, massage, etc. The goal of these techniques is to produce muscle relaxation and the easing of psychological tensions that goes with it. You don't have to spend tremendous amounts of time, effort and money learning special relaxation techniques. You just have to find more humor in your life--and laugh more! Belly laughter produces relaxation automatically and naturally.2
This relaxation effect is easily noticeable when you have a good laugh. In my keynote addresses, I do a laughter exercise in which I get everyone in the room doing belly laughter for half a minute. Afterwards, I ask them what changes they notice in their bodies. The first comment is usually, "I feel a lot more relaxed." The next time you have a good long laugh, look for this feeling of relaxation and reduced tension.
Two separate mechanisms cause the relaxation you notice. Muscles not directly participating in the act of laughter tend to relax while you're laughing. That's why little kids fall down during fits of laughter. It's also why you seem to lose your strength when you're laughing (just try carrying a friend--or any other heavy object--across the room when you're laughing hard). When you stop laughing, the muscles that had been contracting relax. This is no different from what happens with any other physical activity. When you stop working muscles, their natural tendency is to relax. In combination, these two mechanisms produce a general pattern of muscle relaxation throughout your body.
"There ain't much fun in medicine, but there's a heck of a lot of medicine in fun."
One study showed that people using a biofeedback apparatus were able to relax muscles more quickly after watching funny cartoons than after looking at beautiful scenery.3 The importance of this natural relaxation effect may be seen in the fact that relaxation not only helps reduce stress; it also helps alleviate heart disease,4 headaches,5 chronic anxiety,6 and other problems. For patients with rheumatism, neuralgia, or other conditions characterized by a spasm-pain-spasm cycle, the reduced muscle tension that results from laughter disrupts this cycle and reduces the pain experienced.
Reduction of Stress Hormones
When you're under stress, your body undergoes a series of hormonal and other body changes which make up the "fight or flight" response. Even though there's no physical threat to your life, your body reacts as if there were. If you're under stress day after day, this preparation for a vigorous physical response (which never occurs) itself begins to pose a threat--to your health! Anything which reduces the level of stress hormones in the blood on a regular basis helps reduce this health threat.
The limited research on stress-related hormones and humor has shown that laughter reduces at least four neuroendocrine hormones associated with the stress response, including epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone.7 This is consistent with research showing that various relaxation procedures reduce stress hormones.8
Immune System Enhancement
It has long been recognized that stress weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness.9 Only in the mid 1980s, however, did researchers begin to study the impact of humor and laughter on the immune system. The best evidence that humor boosts the immune system comes from studies where immune system measures are taken before and after a particular humorous event--usually a comedy video. But research showing that individuals with a better sense of humor have stronger immune systems is also important, since it shows the importance (for your health) of making the effort to improve your sense of humor.
The greatest amount of research to date has focused on immunoglobulin A, a part of your immune system, which serves to protect you against upper respiratory problems, like colds and the flu. Our saliva contains IgA, and this is often referred to as the body's first line of defense against upper respiratory viral and bacterial infections.
The studies show that watching as little as 30 or 60 minutes of a comedy video is enough to increase both salivary IgA10 and blood levels of IgA.11 This has been shown for both adults and children.12
Immunoglobulins M and G have also been shown to be enhanced as a result of humor/laughter.13 IgM is the antibody that arrives first as part of the humoral immune response. IgG antibodies are present in the greatest amount in the body, and are responsible for producing long-term immunity. When you are immunized for a particular illness, it is the IgG antibodies that are tested to see if the procedure has worked.
This same study showed that watching a comedy video produced increased levels of a substance called Complement 3, which helps antibodies pierce through defective or infected cells in order to destroy them.
Several different aspects of the cellular immune system have also been shown to be enhanced by watching a comedy video. B cells are produced in the bone marrow, and are responsible for making the immunoglobulins. If you count the number of these cells in the blood before and after a comedy video, you can demonstrate a significant increase in the number of B cells circulating throughout the body following humor.14 This is not surprising, of course, since the increased levels of immunoglobulins following humor is now well documented.
Natural Killer Cells
Watching a one-hour humorous video also increases the activity--and number--of natural killer cells, although there is some evidence that this may be true only for individuals whose NK cell activity is lower than average.15, 16 Natural killer cells have the role of seeking out and destroying tumor cells in the body, as well as battling the latest cold- and flu-generating viruses and other foreign organisms. These cells destroy tumor cells and viruses by releasing a toxic substance. They are part of the body's first line of defense, and can attack foreign organisms even if they've never seen them before.
Among cancer patients, reduced natural killer cell activity is associated with an increased rate of spread of tumors.17 So the significance of laughter's ability to increase the activity of these cells is clear. The previously mentioned finding that humor's ability to boost NK cell activity is greatest among those with lower levels of NK cell activity is especially important for cancer patients. This is one reason oncology units of hospitals have become so interested in humor as a form of therapy.18
Another promising study has shown that humor may even have a place in the battle against AIDS. T-cells are another kind of immune cell produced by the thymus gland. The AIDS virus attacks "helper T-cells." Humor and laughter have been shown to increase both the number and level of activation of helper T-cells, and to increase the ratio of helper to suppresser T-cells.19 This is an exciting finding, and suggests that a good sense of humor may contribute not only to a patient's ability to cope with the emotional impact of having the disease, but to the body's ability to battle it as well.
These data are supported by research showing that relaxation techniques increase levels of helper T-cells. For example, medical students' levels of helper T-cells have been shown to be reduced on the day of exams.20 But when half the students were taught relaxation techniques, their level of helper T-cells increased. And the degree of increase was directly related to the extent to which they practiced the techniques learned. So the increased helper T-cell production found for laughter may have been due to the relaxation produced by laughter. Consistent with these findings, relaxation techniques have been shown to increase antibody production, natural killer cell activity, and the effectiveness of cytotoxic T-cells.21
"The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease."