The Power of Laughter

by Mary Roach

To FIND OUT EXACTLY what laughing does for the human body, it's necessary to take laugher into the laboratory. That is what laughter researcher Lee Berk has done. In a series of studies at Loma Linda University in California, Berk measured the effects of laughter on the immune system. Subjects were divided into two groups and hooked up to IVs. Half were shown a video of stand-up comic Richard Gallagher (their choice, not Berk's); the other half sat quietly in a room. During the video and for a half hour afterward, blood samples were drawn every ten minutes. While the control group showed no physiological change, the video watchers had significant increases in various measures of immune function: activated T cells, primed to battle infection; natural killer cells, which attack tumors and microbes; immunoglobulin A antibodies, which patrol the respiratory tract; and gamma interferon, a key immune system messenger. Their levels of the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, were significantly lower.

Berk believes that laughter is a state of "eustress," which is psychology-speak for the opposite of distress. Just as stressful emotions such as grief and anger can suppress the immune system, positive emotions such as mirth, he says, can strengthen it. In other words, laughter creates its own unique physiological state, with changes in the immune system opposite to those caused by stress.

Opposite and, one study suggests, even stronger. Using a group of 96 men over a three-month period, psychiatrist Arthur Stone, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Medical School, measured levels of an antibody thought to be the body's first defense against cold and flu viruses. The men also kept track of their daily emotional ups and downs during that time. Stone reports that positive social interactions, such as entertaining friends or playing with children, affected the men's antibody levels-in this case, raising them-to a greater extent and for a longer period than did negative events, such as arguments or being criticized at work.

As support for the eustress theory, Berk cites the work of Peter Derks, a psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Derks and his colleagues conducted a study in which they decked subjects with electrodes and mapped their brain activity while they listened to jokes. Rather than pinpointing a localized response- "a funny bone in the brain," as Derks puts it-the researchers found that the entire cerebral cortex is involved when people laugh. Mirth, Derks reasoned, stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, and that could in turn boost the immune system, resulting in the therapeutic effects of humor suggested by Norman Cousins.

The emphasis rests on could. "At the moment," says Derks, no one can say with any certainty exactly what's going on when people laugh.

Even if someone could, that's still several steps away from being able to say that laughter benefits health. How much of a difference do these transient boosts to the immune system make! Do people who laugh more get sick less often or actually live longer!

So far, findings are mixed. At Oberlin College in Ohio, psychologist Albert Porterfield gave 220 students two questionnaires, one to assess their sense of humor and a second called the Physical Symptom Scale. He found that those with better humor scores had no fewer symptoms of disease.

A study of humor's effect on longevity, however, yielded more encouraging data. Psychologists Mark Yoder and Richard Haude, at the University of Akron in Ohio, asked a group of senior citizens who had outlived their siblings by an average of seven years to rate their own sense of humor against their sibling's. According to the scores, the living siblings generally believed they had a better sense of humor than the brother or sister who had died.

If a good sense of humor can somehow help people live longer, wouldn't comedians live longest of all? As it turns out, they don't. Psychologist James Rotton, at the Florida International University in Miami, sifted through ten years of Time and Newsweek obituaries. Taking into account gender and cause of death, Rotton compared the life spans of three groups: humorous entertainers, non-humorous entertainers, and people whose fame had nothing to do with entertaining or humor.

Contrary to expectations, Rotton discovered that the humorists, as a group, died younger. (He dismisses the popular notion that comics are unhappy, neurotic people who use humor as a defense or to mask depression; their suicide rate, he found, was no higher than average.) It also appears that being a successful entertainer of any variety takes its toll. Those who had no performing skills, humorous or otherwise, lived longest.

To UNDERSTAND the real long-term benefits of laughter and why laughing clubs are so popular in India-you have only to walk down a street in Bombay. From the moment you step outside, stress is all over you. Noise, traffic, crowds, a cataclysm of diesel and potholes and horns. Children beg at the traffic lights. Cows jaywalk. Men in shirtsleeves sort through heaps of rubble, diligent and methodical, as if it were a desk job. Rather than watching the passersby, people at sidewalk cafes turn their backs to the street, trying to ignore the insanity that surrounds them. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that a few good laughs would ease people's nerves.

Suppose it were as straightforward as this: People can't laugh and be tense at the same time. In other words, laughing is a coping mechanism, a buffer between the immune system and a situation that's causing stress. A jovial moment pulls a person out of her funk, distracts her from troubling thoughts and feelings, creating a respite from the stress that hampers her immune system.

The health-sustaining element in this case wouldn't be laughter itself but the ability to laugh under stressful circumstances. In the early eighties researchers Rod Martin and Herbert Lefcourt, then of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, performed a study to investigate this notion. They showed subjects an unsettling video (an old gruesome aborigine initiation rite) and

asked them to describe what they'd witnessed in a humorous way. As expected, the subjects who managed to make light of the bloody scene were also those who experienced less stress in their daily lives.

This may explain why professional comics don't live any longer than other people. What matters is not the ability to make other people laugh but the ability to make oneself laugh. Michelle Newman, an assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, recently tested this idea. She divided subjects into two groups based on whether they scored high or low on a sense-of-humor questionnaire. Like Martin and Lefcourt's subjects, the groups were asked to narrate a disturbing video (an old gruesome industrial accident). Newman had half of each group's members do it seriously; the other half tried to do it humorously. Meanwhile she monitored heart rate, skin conductivity, and other measures of stress. Both groups registered lower stress levels when they described the scene with humor. When they amused themselves, they were able to cope better with their unease.

Laughter researcher William Fry, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, says: 100 laughs is the aerobic equivalent of ten minutes on a rowing machine. Fry compared the heart rates of study subjects during laughter with his own heart rate during exercise, measured on the rowing machine in his home.)

Laughter also frees individuals from tension. In the morning, if you laugh, your whole mood gets in the proper shape. You are happy the whole day. The happier you are, the healthier.

The average number of times a PRESCHOOLER LAUGHS is 400 times per DAY. The average number of times AN ADULT LAUGHS is only 15. So start laughing!




San Francisco, CA: Time Publishing Ventures Inc.

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Annette Nay Homepage

If you found this article or website to be of value to you, please click here to support this website with a voluntary donation. $5.00
Suggested payment per online question asked of Annette. $10.00
Suggested payment per hour of phone consultation or counseling. $80.00
Search This Website
Search The Web