Four Women laughing at something humorous

Good Humor, Good Health

“The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than twenty asses laden with drugs.”

– Thomas Sydenham, 17th century physician

When was the last time you laughed really hard – a hearty, sidesplitting belly laugh that suddenly grabbed you and sent you reeling out of control? Or you laughed so hard that you forgot what triggered it, leaving you laughing without reason?

Modern science is beginning to confirm that this kind of laughter is not only enjoyable, it’s also health-promoting. Laughter is an invigorating tonic that heightens and brightens mood, gently releasing us from tensions and social constraints. Humor offers a valuable perspective on ourselves and our world. What strikes us as funny is usually triggered by a mismatch between what we expect and what we see.

Laughter is an affirmation of our humanness, a face-saving way to express our anxieties, fears, and other hidden emotions to others. It breaks the ice, builds trust, and draws us together into a common state of well-being. Entertainer Victor Borge once quipped, “Humor is the shortest distance between two people.”

Humor may be one of our best antidotes to stressful situations. When confronted with a threatening situation, animals have two choices: they can flee, or they can fight. We humans have a third alternative: to laugh. By seeing the humor in a stressful situation, we may be able to change our response to the threat. Humor allows us to distance ourselves and replace paralyzing feelings of anxiety with mirth. When we laugh, we simply cannot be worrying deeply at the same time.

What the Research Shows

Laughter is called “inner jogging.” A robust laugh gives the muscles of your face, shoulders, diaphragm, and abdomen a good workout, and sometimes even your arms and legs. Heart rate and blood pressure temporarily rise, breathing becomes faster and deeper, and oxygen surges throughout your bloodstream.

Your muscles go limp and your blood pressure may fall, leaving you in a mellow euphoria. A good laugh can burn up as many calories per hour as brisk walking. During a good hearty laugh your brain orchestrates hormonal rushes that rouse you to a high-level alertness and numb pain. Researchers speculate that laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the brain’s opiates. This may account for the pain relief that accompanies laughter.

Norman Cousins claimed to nurse himself back to health from a crippling arthritic condition, in part with old tapes of “Candid Camera” television program and Marx Brothers movies. He claimed that ten minutes of belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give him at least two hours of pain-free sleep.

In controlled studies, humor has been shown to lower pain thresholds, reduce stress and even boost immune system function.

In one study, people listening to twenty minutes of Lily Tomlin joking about the telephone company were far less sensitive to pain than those who listened to an academic lecture. The Tomlin tape also blocked pain as effectively as a standard relaxation tape-and you know which one was more fun.

People who use humor a lot are less likely to get upset when faced with negative events. In another study, students had to solve increasingly tricky math problems, becoming highly stressed in the process. Afterwards, they could listen to relaxation tapes, watch an exploration film on the Icelandic River, or see a funny “Candid Camera” scene. The relaxation and funny tapes both reduced stress. But humor only worked for people used to laughing a lot. Laughter needs to be a regular part of your life to get its full benefit.

Researchers also found that watching a funny tape of Richard Pryor Live temporarily boosted levels of antibodies in saliva (they help defend us against infections like colds. Those who reported using humor frequently as a way of coping with stress had consistently higher baseline levels of these protective antibodies. And finally, people with a strong sense of humor tend not to have the expected drop in immune function following exposure to stress.

How to Use Humor to Stay Healthy

Babies start to laugh when they are 10 weeks old: six weeks later they are laughing about once every hour. Four-year-olds laugh once every four minutes. The average American grown-up is said to laugh only about 15 times per day. Sadly, our culture tends to inhibit humor. We learn to associate growing up with “getting serious.” And being “serious” is somehow equated with being solemn and humorless. We are ordered to “wipe that smile off your face” and told that things are “no laughing matter.” Sometimes we repress our good humor, because we’re afraid that others will think we’re frivolous or foolish. Our funny bone gets broken. Fortunately, a laughter prescription is not a bitter pill to swallow. Here are some suggestions for repairing your sense of humor and regaining healthy laughter.

“Seven days without laughter makes one weak.”

Expose Yourself to Humor

There’s a lot of funny material around. Actively seek out things that make you laugh:

  • Take in regular doses of funny films, joke books, and comedians.
  • Browse through the humor section of a bookstore or library.
    Make a point of looking at the cartoons in the newspapers and magazines. Cut out the ones that appeal to
  • you, and keep them posted in places where you can see them: on the refrigerator, bulletin board, or in your wallet, and change them regularly.
  • Laugh at other people’s jokes: you’ll feel better, they’ll feel better, and they’ll like you more.
  • Expose yourself to different styles of humor. If you hate the Marx Brothers, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a sense of humor. Try political cartoons or dry British humor. The more you tune in to how much that’s funny in this world, the more you will enjoy yourself.

Keep a Humor Journal

Get into the habit of listening for the unintentionally amusing remark and note it down in a diary. Watch for the wonderfully funny things young children spontaneously say or write.

Listen for the amusing slips of the tongue, or the amusing error or the clever pun. Watch the newspapers for humorous newspaper headlines. Write down clever bumper stickers, license plates, witticisms, funny events that happen to you or a friend.

Find (or make up) some funny saying to repeat to yourself whenever the going gets rough, or you start feeling stressed or disappointed. For instance, “When you get to the top of the ladder, you find it is leaning against the wrong wall,” or as Charlie Brown said, “I have a new philosophy. I’m only going to dread one day at a time.” The saying will give you a wry smile and serve as a pick-me-up. The saying can become an old friend reminding you to see the humorous side, even when things don’t feel very funny.

Tell a Joke

Having a good sense of humor doesn’t mean you have to have a store of jokes or tell them perfectly. Lots of people who know a good joke say they can’t tell them properly, so they keep them to themselves. Or they forget them the moment after they hear them.

Nurture your jokes. If you hear a good one, write it in your journal and tell five other people as soon as possible, so it imprints on your mind. Don’t worry about how well you are telling it. Sometimes screwing up the delivery can create something that’s even funnier than the original joke.
If you can’t remember a joke, tune in to the humor in everyday situations. Become aware of the sitcom of your own life. Sooner or later we all have experiences that strike us as funny – notice them, collect them, and share them.

Laugh at Yourself

Focus the humor on yourself rather than others. If you expect to do everything right all of the time, then you can’t afford to have a sense of humor. But if you can allow yourself the inevitable mistakes and stupidities that we all make, then you can laugh at yourself. Being able to laugh at yourself helps you to accept that your shortcomings don’t really matter that much. The people who are able to laugh at themselves have a much stronger sense of self-worth and higher self-esteem than those who can’t.

If you think you are taking yourself too seriously, try to back up and give yourself a sense of perspective. Keep a pair of Groucho glasses to put on at such moments, then twirl in front of the mirror and ask, “just how serious is this?”

When you have a private moment, look at yourself in the mirror and try to compose 10 different funny faces, e.g., sucked-in cheeks, pressed-in nose, crossed eyes, tongue as far above or below your mouth as possible. Work all your face muscles – it will reduce tension. When you have perfected your faces, dare to use one of them on some appropriate occasion: having fun with the kids, fooling around at work, or to strangers on vacation.

Or do a “Candid Camera” on yourself. Take a step back from your office or your kitchen and see what is going on there with outsiders’ eyes. How would they react to the scenario that just now seems of such vital importance to you – your clash with the boss or ambitious colleague or disgruntled salesperson, or your broken dishwasher that’s spilled water all over the kitchen ?oor?
The real test of seeing whether or not you can laugh at yourself is if you can take a bit of teasing. We all need a few things that we are willing to be teased about by our nearest and dearest – things like our clumsiness, forgetfulness, or getting our words twisted, or perhaps a few physical ones such as ?at feet or balding. But they really do have to be things you can see the funny side of too. If you don’t feel okay about it, gently let the joker know the subject is off limits.

Look for the Funny Side

A stressful situation can sometimes be transformed into a bit of fun if you can see the humor in it. One traveler tells of an airport “horror story”:

After a long flight, the group of weary travelers finally arrived, but their baggage didn’t. After a long wait one suitcase finally appeared. But it was obviously damaged, and clothing and personal items spilled all over the conveyor belt.

Everyone was becoming quite upset when one group member commented: “Relax, this is really funny. In a few weeks we’ll be telling stories about tonight, and we’ll be laughing about it. Why wait? If it’ll be funny then, it’s funny now!”

That comment broke the tension and drew the travelers together. When the other bags didn’t arrive, they smiled. When the car rental agency ran out of cars, they laughed. And when they heard there was a taxi strike, they howled.


Try using humorous exaggeration to help put things into perspective. Expand situations into mock life and death proportions. Woody Allen once remarked: “More than any other time in history, humankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Dear Mom and Dad,
I am sorry that I have not written, but all my stationery was destroyed when the dorm burned down. The car crash that followed when we drove away wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time, for we were all alive. I am now out of the hospital and the doctor said that I will be fully recovered within a few years, and I may well be able to walk one day. I have also moved in with the boy who rescued me, since most of my things were destroyed in the fire.



PS. There was no fire, no accident and my health is perfectly fine. In fact, I do not even have a boyfriend. However, I did get a D in French and a C in Math and Chemistry, and I just wanted to make sure that you keep it all in perspective.

Try a Retake

Ever been stuck in the supermarket line that doesn’t move an inch while the lines you rejected are flying past you? You might find yourself thinking, “Oh no, why me, why now, I’m late!”

Try taking another attitude. Reframe the situation. Make your moans into a comic routine for yourself.

Exaggerate, add funny extras, explore the humorous possibilities:

“Just my luck. The man at the head of the line knows the checker and they want to chat. So they pretend they don’t know the price of canned tuna. In fact, the shopper probably looked everywhere for a can with no price so that he could bring it to his friend the checker. Maybe he has lots of items with no prices.

It probably takes him hours to do his shopping, looking for those items. He’s just lucky that by the time he’s finished collecting all his unpriced items, his friend hadn’t gone on break.”

Try Humor Instead of Anger

Next time you are really livid about an inconvenience – like poor service, try making your point with humor instead of anger:

David went with his family to a fancy restaurant. Everyone ordered clam chowder. David noticed a gritty texture in the soup, scowled and began to complain angrily. His nine-year-old son, Matt, also noted the grit but replied with a grin, “The clams are so fresh, you can still taste the sand in them!”

Use Humor to Handle Anxiety

Think of something humorous to say when you need someone to know that you are frightened, anxious, or in some way unhappy. It can lighten a tense moment and break the ice.

Nick was lying on a hospital gurney after he mysteriously collapsed in the street. His wife was beside him, anxiously wringing her hands. The atmosphere was extremely tense as a young doctor took down his medical details and asked, “Do you get breathless at night?” “Only when I get lucky,” he replied.

Everyone suddenly exploded into laughter and the unhelpful tension was broken.

Humor can help reduce anxiety in many different ways. If you are terrified of speaking in public or fear making a presentation at work, for example, imagine your audience wearing funny hats or sitting there without their clothes on. Suddenly they won’t seem so threatening. Practice by imagining a stressful situation. Then invent a humorous response, and rehearse it.

Make up a Comedy Routine

Imagine sitting at a table on which an old tennis shoe, a drinking glass, and
an aspirin bottle have been placed. Now make up a comedy routine for three minutes describing the objects on the table in as humorous a manner as you can.

Research shows that the funnier monologue you are able to produce, the less likely you are to become tense, depressed, angered, fatigued, or confused when confronted with stress in your life. And it can be freeing, enabling us to get detached from our problems. After watching funny movies, people solve problems with more ingenuity and innovation.

Hang Out with Happy People

Make sure there are people in your life whom you find it fun to be around – ones who lighten the atmosphere and make you feel good about yourself.

Often people who aren’t especially witty as a rule can be razor-sharp when they get together with someone who inspires them, amuses them, or just loosens them up. Certain people make you feel relaxed and happy.

Others are too full of gloom and doom, or are just relentlessly serious. Try to avoid getting brought down by those who are negative. Spend more time with people whose presence gives your mood a boost. If you don’t know such people, seek them out.

Put On a Happy Face

Research has shown that just changing your facial muscles can set off different physiological changes. It can also trigger different thoughts that affect moods of sadness, happiness, and anger. So when we “put on a happy face” in times of adversity, or say “have a nice day” or “smile at a camera and say cheese,” we are actually changing our neurohormone levels, and they change our moods. A smile-like pose produces pleasant feelings, whereas a pout produces feelings of unhappiness. So even when you don’t feel particularly cheerful and you smile, blood flow to the brain increases, and the production of positive neurotransmitters are stimulated. In other words, if you look happier, you might actually start to feel happier. So if you can’t laugh, smile. And if you can’t smile, fake it.

Humor can be a powerful medicine, and laughter can be contagious. It’s reassuring in these days of deadly epidemics and sometimes painful, expensive medical treatments that laughter is cheap and effective. And the only side effects are pleasurable.

For More Information:

  • American Association of Therapeutic Humor, 222 S. Merrimac, Suite 303, St. Louis, MO 63105 (314-863-6232)
  • Baim, Margaret and La Roche, Loretta: “Jest ‘n’ Joy” in Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart, The Wellness Book, New York: Carol Publishing, 1992.
  • Blumenfield, Esther and Alpern, Lynne: The Smile Connection: How to Use Humor in Dealing with People. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.
  • Hageseth, Christian: A Laughing Place: The Art and Psychology of Positive Humor in Love and Adversity. Fort Collins, CO: Berwick Publishing Co., 1988.
  • Klein, Alan: The Healing Power of Humor. Los Angeles: Jeremey P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989.
  • Metcalf, C.W. and Felible, Roma: Lighten Up: Survival Skills for People Under Pressure. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992.
  • The Humor Project. 110 Spring Street, Saratoga Springs, NY 128666 (518-587-8770). Publishes Laughing Matters Magazine, Humor Resources Catalog, and a clearinghouse for theory, research, and practical ideas related to humor.

When Laughter is Dangerous

Not all humor is positive and healthful. Following are kinds of negative “humor” to watch out for:

  • Scorn, sarcasm, ridicule, and contempt. These can be used to discharge hostile, cynical, and resentful feelings, and are harmful.
  • Inappropriate humor. When people are deeply distressed by the death of a loved one, a joke designed to “cheer them up” is unlikely to be appreciated. Similarly, people who are severely depressed are unable to respond to humor. It may make them feel worse because they realize that once they would have laughed, and now cannot. Someone seeking advice for a troubling personal problem may or may not be helped by a humorous approach. And don’t joke about people’s names. They have to live with them. Whatever clever comment you think you come up with is probably a very old remark to them. It is important to be sensitive to each occasion and know when humor really helps.

This article was originally adapted from The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook by David S. Sobel and Robert Ornstein. Publisher: DRx, Los Altos, CA, 1996. May not be reproduced without written permission.

Excerpted with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter, Mind/Body Health Newsletter. For subscription information call 1-(800)-222-4745 or visit the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge website.

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Written by David S. Sobel MD

Explore Wellness in 2021