“Nobody Ever Died Of Laughter”: In Fact, Mr. Beerbohm, It Might Just Keep Them Alive

“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.” ~Groucho Marx

In a family of total characters and would-be comedians, I can find it hard to hold my own in the humor department. When the rest of the crowd gets going, I usually serve in the requisite role that I’ve deemed the “humor-appreciator.” And, really, someone must play this role in order for my beloved performers to feel truly adored.

So I’m not the biggest innovator, it’s true. But I truly value humor. And apparently that’s not just good enough for my family–it might be good enough to keep me healthy and well, and, if some studies hold true, alive longer.

Apparently, you see, my appreciation of the fine art of humor strengthens my immune system, and protects me from illness (which must be true, now that I think about it, since every time my 2-year-old granddaughter comes over she’s sneezing and hacking and snotting, mostly all over me, but sometimes, if her direction changes, right into my food, and I’m still alive and kicking, despite her best efforts).

Turns out that multiple studies have demonstrated that subjects watching a humorous video have actual increases in their salivary and blood (ready for this science term? Deep breath) immunoglobin A. Called IgA by her friends, for short,  this particular immunoglobin A is part of the immune system and particularly protects you against colds and the flu [apparently my granddaughter is currently missing her IgA, and I’d like to file a complaint with the immunoglobin department]. IgA is found in what people with class call your ‘saliva’ (my family refers to it as ‘spit’), and is the first line of defense against respiratory viral and bacterial infections.

So humor-appreciators are healthier. All the better, especially if they have grandchildren in stealth campaigns to bring them to their knees. But that’s not really enough for people like us, who cheerfully guffaw when others go into entertainment mode–we deserve more.

In fact, why shouldn’t our senses of humor keep us alive longer, while we’re at it?

Well, our wish is science’s command–three cheers for humor and better mortality rates. A study of Norwegians (from the county of Nord-Trøndelag, no less) published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine entitled “A 7-year prospective study of sense of humor and mortality in an adult county population: The HUNT-2 study” found that being able to appreciate what’s funny in life actually reduced mortality by about 20% for people with the highest “humor-appreciation” ability compared to those with the lowest scores.  Additionally those with highest scores were twice as likely to survive the 7-year  follow-up period, once again as compared to those with the lowest scores.

Clearly there has to be some objective scale to measure humor, as merely appreciating bathroom jokes won’t necessarily keep you around forever.

(This study’s author’s name, by the way, is Sven Sveback. Would anyone ever guess that he’s Norwegian?) Sveback divided sense of humor into three dimensions: 1) The cognitive – the ability to understand humor; 2) The social – the ability to get along with people who are funny; and  3) The affective – a person’s predilection for smiling and laughing. He failed to accurately identify the fourth dimension, finding my son and daughter truly hilarious, but I don’t think that de-legitimizes his study completely.

Of particular interest, given this thread of posts on cancer, is the author’s findings regarding humor and cancer.  A subgroup of subjects with cancer diagnoses demonstrated the powerful effect of humor as well. In that subgroup of 2,015 people, those with the best sense of humor cut their chances of death–according to the study’s structure–by about 70% when compared with those who scored at the bottom of the humor-appreciation scale.

Additionally, several studies have even determined that natural killer cell activity (killer cells are lymphocytes that play a major role in the rejection of tumors) was significantly increased in subjects after they watched a humorous video (see Bennett below). [See Billy Crystal at the Oscars and fight your tumor at the same time!]

Humor helps other chronic illnesses also, for those whose immune systems didn’t withstand the assault of disease. Just as one example, an analysis of 46 patients with COPD found a signficant correlation between sense of humor and psychological functioning and better quality of life.  But beyond that, researchers discovered that a higher humor score was also correlated with fewer recent sick days taken (see Lebowitz below).  AIDS patients, too, appear to benefit.  Humor and laughter have been shown to increase both the number and level of activation of helper T-cells, which are the immune cells attacked by the AIDS virus (see McGhee).

But wait! There’s more! A good sense of humor can increase your tolerance for pain overall. Several studies demonstrated that listening to or watching funny tapes increases the length of time subjects could endure having their hands in ice water before they experienced discomfort–both adults and children. Additionally, one study found that children watching cartoons were better able to tolerate the pain experienced during hydrotherapy for their burns (not a pleasant experience under any circumstances).

And–the piece-de-le-resistance, as the psuedo-French say– a sense of humor just seems to make the life you do live–pain- and illness-free or not–all that much better. Higher sense of humor scores were correlated with lower levels of depression and loneliness and higher levels of self-esteem. And they were also associated with higher scores on quality of life (see both Kuiper articles).  In the studies, individuals with “a higher frequency of laughter did not show greater levels of negative affect as stressful life events increased.” Things just roll of the backs of these people more, and the inevitable stresses and strains of life simply don’t get them down in the same way that they would the local Grinch.

Appears there’s no two ways around it–people generally live better, healthier, longer lives when they can appreciate and laugh at humor. They might even be able to survive the germ onslaught of my granddaughter without being brought to their knees (although that’s going some).

So make time for humor, and make time to laugh.

And if you’re not sure how to go about it, how to tickle your funny bone, so to speak–my kids are always looking for an audience. Sometimes just one laughing mom isn’t enough to satisfy the aspirations of frustrated comedians.


Bennett Mary, et al. The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2003; 9(2):38-45.

Berk LS, et al. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2001; 7(2):62-72, 74-6.

Kelley ML, et al. Decreasing burned children’s pain behavior: Impacting the trauma of hydrotherapy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1984; 17(2):147-158.

Kuiper N, Martin R. Humor and self-concept. HumorInternational Journal of Humor Research 1993; 6(3):251–70.

Kuiper N, Martin R, Dance K. Sense of humor and enhanced quality of life. Personality and Individual Differences Journal 1992; 13(12):1273–83.

Lebowitz Kim. Effects of humor and laughter on psychological functioning, quality of life, health status, and pulmonary functioning among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A preliminary investigation. Heart and Lung: The Journal of Acute and Critical Care 2011; 40(4):310-319.

Martin Rod. Sense of humor and physical health: Theoretical issues, recent findings, and future directions. International Journal of Humor Research 2004; 17(1-2):1-19.

McGhee Paul. Humor and Health 2004; discprofileforsales.com. (It’s an online webcourse based on McGhee’s book Health, Healing and the Amuse System, and the handout packet is available at this website. Check it out.)

Stuber Margaret et al. Laughter, humor and pain perception in children: A pilot study. Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine 2009; 6(2):271–276.

Sveback S, Romundstad S, Holmen J. A 7-year prospective study of sense of humor and mortality in an adult county population: the HUNT-2 study. International Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine 2010; 40(2):125-46.

Easier access: check out summaries of  several of these original studies at: http://www.healthy-holistic-living.com/science-behind-humor.html#ixzz1o7Gl43yT.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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