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Laughter and Health: The Truth Behind the Sites

By Erin Hamer

 

         It is a common belief that laughter is good for a person’s health.  However, looking the truth on the topic via the Internet can be a daunting challenge, especially when deciding what to believe and what not to believe.  The first step in the search for the truth is to search for what information is out there that relates to your topic.  After searching the web, a way to verify the information is needed.  For this, turning to scientific journals is a good place to begin.  In these scientific journals, studies relating to the topic can be searched out, and the actual proof of a relationship between laughter and health can be found.  Further down the page, there is a summary of the results of doing this type of search.  The material from the Internet search is listed first, followed by the scientific evidence (or lack of evidence) to back up the claims.

 

What Is On The Web?

First Basic Finding

Second Basic Finding

Third Basic Finding

Fourth Basic Finding

The Other Purposes of Laughter

Discussion

What Does the Research Say

References

 

 

What Is On The Web?

         A search of the topic of the healing power of laughter turned up many pages that repeated the same basic things.  There are four major points that show the relationship between health and laughter that appeared on most of the sites visited.  Other smaller, periphery findings are also included in some of the pages.  First, the four major findings are discussed, followed by the discussion of the smaller findings. 

 

First Basic Finding

         The first basic finding is that pain is reduced through laughter.  There are two methods by which laughter can help relieve pain in the body.  The first way is that laughter is a welcome distraction to pain that “allows a person to ‘forget’ about aches and pains.” (http://vanderbiltowc.wellsource.com/dh/Content.asp?ID=649)  This article tells the reader that laughter is just a distraction from pain—something new to focus on.  This method of relieving pain is not exclusive, however, to laughter.  This technique of distraction works in other ways as well.  The second way that laughter relieves pain is through triggering the release of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that are natural painkillers—they leave a general sense of well-being when released. (http://www.healthlibrary.com/reading/yod/current/laughter.htm and http://www.indiadiets.com/Alternative%20Healing/Laughter.htm)  Many of these studies cite the case of Norman Cousins as proof or indication that this claim is true.  Cousins had a very painful spinal disease that kept him awake at night.  He found that ten minutes of “belly laughter” would allow him to sleep pain free for two hours. (http://www.indiadiets.com/Alternative%20Healing/Laughter.htm and http://www.holistic-online.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_mcghee_article.htm and http://www.latterklub.dk/htm/artikel_%20health_benefits_of_laughter_therapy.htm)

 

 

Second Basic Finding

         The second basic finding is that laughter strengthens the immune system.  The results of laughing are an increase in natural killer cells and antibodies (http://www.healthlibrary.com/reading/yod/current/laughter.htm and http://www.latterklub.dk/htm/artikel_%20health_benefits_of_laughter_therapy.htm), and T-cells. (http://www.hhp.ufl.edu/keepingfit/ARTICLE/LAF.HTM)  Natural killer cells and T-cells are types of defense cells that attack foreign material in our bodies.  Antibodies are our specific defenses against diseases.  Laughter increasing the production of these cells and antibodies increases the likelihood that infections will be attacked and expelled from the body.  This results in fewer illnesses when a person laughs each day.

 

 

Third Basic Finding

         The third basic finding is that laughter relaxes the muscles and tones facial muscles.  One hypothesis of muscle relaxation is that laughter increases the release of adrenalin from the adrenal glands due to stimulation of the hypothalamus, which causes relaxation. (http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/333/341/315813.html)  One site boasts that laughter is akin to meditation, in that relaxation is an outcome.  However, laughter is easier to do, and it is something we already do naturally.  This same site tells us that laughter builds up the muscles in the face and throat, causing a reduction in the amount of snoring a person does. (www.healthlibrary.com/reading/yod/current/laughter.htm) A different site claims that muscles relax “more quickly after watching funny cartoons than after looking at beautiful scenery.” (http://www.holisticonline.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_mcghee_article.htm)  Everyone feels better when relaxing after a long day of work or school.  This is a good suggested method to relax that is available to everyone.

 

 

Fourth Basic Finding

         The fourth basic finding is that laughter reduces the effects of stress in the body.  This is the major finding that almost all of the sites agreed upon.  One site claims that laughter fights off fatigue. (www.monksofadoration.org/hn/healnt11.html)  Another site says that our bodies go through the motions of the “fight or flight” response when we get high stress levels, and that laughing reduces some of those chemicals. (http://www.holistic-online.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_mcghee_article.htm and www.bbc.co.uk/health/features/laughter.shtml)  We have all felt a bit less stressed out after a good laugh with the friends or after watching a comedy show on TV.  Laughter sure beats the feelings of tension and stress continuing for days.

 

The Other Purposes of Laughter

         These findings are not discussed as much on the websites as the four major results of laughing.  However, one site does suggest that blood pressure decreases below baseline after a good fit of laughing and that laughing is good exercise for the heart. (http://http://www.holistic-online.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_mcghee_article.htm)  Laughter has been described as an internal “massage” of the organs, which stimulates digestion and circulation. (http://www.monksofadoration.org/hn/healnt11.html)

 

 

Discussion of the Web Results

         The results were found in a search for “health and laughter” on the World Wide Web.  Websites have different motivations for creation and different types of evidence presented to support their claims.  In the websites listed above, very few of them actually provide any evidence to support for their claims.  Mostly the writers of the website remark on what they have heard elsewhere.  These websites were not meant for scholarly use, but rather to be used as sources of informal information about the topic.  Laughter is a natural phenomenon that occurs either spontaneously or by force.  As far as these websites can discern, there are no harmful side effects to laughing.  The writers are just aiming to give a little information about an interesting subject.  One site found provided a similar article to this one, the author tries to examine facts. (http://humormatters.com/articles/research.htm) 

 

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What Does the Research Say

           Research is also a daunting task to undertake.  Finding what you need to know can take hours, or even days.  However, summarized here are some studies that answer some of the questions we have about laughter and its relationship to health.  These questions are ones such as whether laughter really affects a person physically and mentally, does laughter really relieve pain or is it all psychological, and whether or not laughter can prevent illness from occurring or boosts the immune system.

 

Immune System and Stress Reduction.

    A study reported by Bennett, et al (2003) reported that findings consistent with previous psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) data show the effects of stress are detrimental to the immune system.  The study also shows that people with higher arousal levels (which results from stress) have lower levels of NK cells at baseline, and high stress levels meant less positive change in NK cell levels.  Since there is no reliable research, we cannot conclude that the effects of laughter enhance immunity.  We can conclude, however, that the effect of mirthful laughter on reducing stress is a real occurrence.  One study (McClelland and Cheriff, 1997) claims levels of the chemical S-IgA (a chemical that fights upper respiratory infection) were increased in patients who watched a humorous video, compared to those who watched a documentary.  This would lead one to believe that laughter boosts the immune system.  However, another study (Njus, Nitschke, and Bryant, 1996) reported no significant effects on levels of S-IgA.  Itami, Nobori, and Teshima (1994) reported no significant changes in three chemicals important in the immune system, but said that the changes they did find were a result of regression to the mean.  The data that looks at the effects of laughter on the immune system is inconclusive.  Some studies support the claim, others cannot replicate the effects.  More research is needed on the topic of laughter and immunity.  Martin and Dobbin (1988) reported on the relationship between S-IgA levels and stress.  They found that a “stress-moderating effect of sense of humor on S-IgA was supported.”  Research on stress and humor as a form of relief has been studied extensively, and basically the finding that humor is a good stress reducer is the outcome.

 

Pain Reduction and Relaxation.

         There have been several studies that show a relationship between laughter and pain reduction or increase of pain tolerance.  However, the results are still inconclusive.  A study by Nevo, Keinan, and Tehimovsky-Arditi (1993) showed that there were no differences in pain ratings of participants watching humor videos or those watching a documentary or no video at all.  Another study (Hudak, Dale, Hudak, and DeGood, 1991) showed greater change scores between pre-test and post-test thresholds.  However, this was due to a decrease in threshold of the participants of the documentary group.  In a study by Cogan, Cogan, Waltz, and McCue (1987), thresholds of discomfort were tested in four groups—laughter, relaxation, dull narrative, and no-treatment.  There was no difference between the laughter and relaxation groups, but both of these groups were higher than the other two groups.  There has also been an argument made that the effect of laughter on pain tolerance is due to general emotional arousal, not just laughter. (Zillmann, Rockwell, Schweitzer, and Sundar, 1993)  More research is needed on the effects of laughter on pain tolerance to determine the full analgesic effects it could have.

 

Conclusion.

         Overall, there is no straightforward evidence that laughter has a particular effect on health.  Some studies show promising results, only to not be replicated.  Other studies show conflicting evidence.  No matter what you choose to believe, you will be able to find some kind of support for your claim to back you up.  No conclusions may be drawn decisively, however, there is evidence that laughter may have an effect on health.  Until this issue is settled once and for all through scientific research, people will continue to use laughter as a form of therapy.  It will still relieve pain in some, but not others.  People will cite their good sense of humor for not getting sick.  They will go out to dinner with friends, using a need to relax as an excuse to not do their homework.  Laughter is a natural part of our lives, and is not going to cease from existence just because it has not been proven scientifically.  People will believe what they know.

 

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References

Web References

http://www.healthlibrary.com/readin/yod/current/laughter.htm  “Health Benefit of Laughter Therapy”

 

http://www.indiadiets.com/Alternative%20Healing/Laughter.htm  “Laughter Therapy”

 

http://www.holistic-online.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_mcghee_article.htm  “Humor and Health”, Paul E. McGhee, PhD.

 

http://www.latterklub.dk/htm/artikel_%20health_benefits_of_laughter_therapy.htm  “Health Benefits of Laughter: Dr. Kataria’s School of Laughter Yoga”

 

http://www.hlp.ufl.edu/keepingfit/ARTICLE/LAF.HTM  “Laughter, Good for What Ails You”, Patrick J Bird, PhD., 1998

 

http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIH000/333/341/315813.html  “Yes, Laughter May Be the Best Medicine”, 2001

 

http://www.monksofadoration.org/hn/healnt11.html  “Laughter and Health”

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/features/laughter/shtml   “Laughter and Health”, Dr. Trisha MacNair.

 

http://www.humormatters.com/articles/research.htm   “Examining the Research on Humor: Being Cautious About our Conclusions”, Steven M Sultanoff, PhD.  1999.

 

http://Vanderbiltowc.wellsource.com/dh/Content.asp?ID=649    “Is Laughter Good for Health? It Seems So

 

Scientific References

 

Cogan, R., Cogan, D., Waltz, W., & McCue, M. (1987).  Effects of laughter and relaxation on discomfort thresholds.  Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 10, 139-144.

 

Hudak, D. A., Dale, A., Hudak, M. A., & DeGood, D. E. (1991).  Effects of humorous stimuli and sense of humor on discomfort.  Psychological Reports, 69, 779-786.

 

Itami, J., Nobori, M., & Teshima, H. (1994).  Laughter and immunity.  Japanese Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, 34, 565-571.

 

Martin, R. A., & Dobbin, J. P. (1988).  Sense of humor, hassles, and Immunoglobulin A: Evidence for a stress-moderating effect of humor.  International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 18, 93-105.

 

McClelland, D. C., & Cheriff, A. D. (1997).  The immunoenhancing effects of humor on secretory IgA and resistance to respiratory infections.  Psychology and Health, 12, 329-344.

 

Nevo, O., Keinan, G., & Teshimovsky-Arditi, M. (1993).  Humor and pain tolerance.  Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6, 71-88.

 

Njus, D. M., Nitschke, W., & Bryant, F. B. (1996).  Positive affect, negative affect, and the moderating effect of writing on sIgA antibody levels.  Psychology and Health, 12, 135-148.

 

Zillmann, D., Rockwell, S., Schweitzer, K., & Sundar, S. S. (1993).  Does humor facilitate coping with physical discomfort? Motivation and Emotion, 17, 1-21.

 

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