Newsletter - March, 2000

Humor and Laughter Strengthen Your Immune System (Part 3)

Paul McGhee, PhD

    "Over the years, I have encountered a surprising number of instances in which, to all appearances, patients have laughed themselves back to health, or at least have used their sense of humor as a very positive and adaptive response to their illness."
    (Raymond A. Moody, M.D.)

Sense of Humor and Immunity

In the first two issues of this newsletter, we saw that even watching a humorous video strengthens different components of the immune system. It makes sense, then, that individuals who have a better developed sense of humor--meaning that they find more humor in their everyday life, seek out humor more often, laugh more, etc.--should have a stronger immune system, because they get more of the kinds of benefits offered by watching a comedy video by exercising their sense of humor more often in everyday life. Consistent with this expectation, three studies have shown that individuals with higher scores on a sense of humor test have higher "baseline levels” of IgA.1

If people with a better sense of humor have a stronger immune system than their humor-impaired friends, you might expect that those with a less developed sense of humor would show more immunoenhancement from watching a comedy video--because they have more room to improve. The available research, however, suggests that the opposite is true. Individuals with higher sense of humor scores show the greatest increase in IgA after watching a funny video.2 This suggests that those with a better sense of humor may have appreciated the videos more, or laughed more.

"The simple truth is that happy people generally don’t get sick.”
(Bernie Siegel, M.D.)

Humor’s ability to protect you against immunosuppression during stress was evident in a study which compared people with a well-developed sense of humor (they found a lot of humor in their everyday life or frequently used humor to cope with stress) to people with a poor sense of humor. Among those who rarely found humor in their own lives, especially when under stress, greater numbers of everyday hassles and negative life events were associated with greater suppression of their immune system (as assessed by IgA levels). Among those with a well-developed sense of humor, on the other hand, everyday hassles and problems did not weaken the immune system.3 Their heightened sense of humor helped keep them from becoming more vulnerable to illness when under stress.

The Role of Mood

Your immune system is very sensitive to your mood, being stronger on your "up” days, and weaker on "down” days. This has been shown for both IgA levels and natural killer cell activity.4 Thus, it may be the negative emotion or mood that accompanies stress that is responsible for the reduced level of antibody response when the immune system is asked to fight a virus or other antigen. This negative effect has been shown with reduced levels of natural killer cell activity,5 lymphocyte proliferation,6 serum antibody response to Hepatitis B vaccine,7 and salivary IgA response to a novel antigen,8 to name a few.

Part of the health-promoting power of your sense of humor lies in the fact that it helps keep the negative events that occur in your life from disturbing your mood.9 It helps you keep an upbeat, optimistic outlook, even in the face of stress. Bernie Siegel has long emphasized the importance of a positive, optimistic mood in fighting cancer and sustaining wellness,10 and your sense of humor is one of the best ways you have to maintain this mood on high-stress days.

Which is More Important, Laughter or the Experience of Humor?

A key question with all of this immune system research concerns the relative importance of laughter versus the mental/emotional experience of humor. Only two studies have addressed this issue. In one, half the participants were encouraged to laugh at the comedy video, while the other half were asked to suppress laughter while watching. Comparable levels of increased salivary IgA were found for the two groups.11 Since laughter did not boost the amount of IgA increase, this suggests that the experience of humor may be more important than how much you laugh. However, another study showed that how funny you find the video is not related to the amount of IgA increase shown.12

The precise way in which one’s own sense of humor provides immunoenhancement benefits is clearly complicated, and is not yet well understood. It is now clear, however, that your sense of humor is a powerful tool in helping to assure that your immune system is operating at peak levels. As we all continue to experience more and more stress on our jobs and elsewhere in our lives, we will need all the sources of sustaining good health that we can find. Good nutrition, exercise, avoiding harmful drugs and getting adequate sleep will no longer be enough. It is now more important than ever to find effective ways of maintaining a positive attitude and optimistic outlook in life. A good laugh helps us stay positive--even on the tough days.

[Adapted from Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Published by Kendall/Hunt, 1999. To order a copy by e-mail, see Click on orders. ISBN number is 7872-5797-4.]

Pun Fun

More Signs in English Found in Different Countries

(Designed to help you practice using your sense of humor in English.)

Ad by a Hong Kong dentist: "Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists."

In a Rome laundry: "Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time."

In a Czech tourist agency: "Take one of our horse-driven tours. We guarantee--no miscarriages!"

Ad for donkey rides in Thailand: "Would you like to ride your own ass?"

On a faucet in a Finnish restroom: "To stop the drip, turn cock to right."
(Surely, they had no idea how offensive this might be.)

1. Dillon, K.M., et al. Positive emotional states and enhancement of the immune system. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1985, 5, 13-18.
Dillon, K.M. & Totten, M.C. Psychological factors, immunocompetence, and health of breast feeding mothers and their infants. Journal of General Psychology, 1989, 150, 155-162.
McClelland, D.C. & Cheriff, A.D. The immunoenhancement effects of humor on secretory IgA and resistance to respiratory infections. Psychology and Health, 1997, 12, 329-344.
2. Lefcourt, H., et al. Humor and immune system functioning. International Journal of Humor Research, 1990, 3, 305-321.
McClelland & Cheriff, 1997.
3. Martin, R.A. & Dobbin, J.P. Sense of humor, hassles, and immunoglobulin A: Evidence for a stress-moderating effect of humor. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1988, 18, 93-105.
4. Stone, A.A., et al. Evidence that secretory IgA is associated with daily mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, 52, 988-993.
Valdimarsdottir, H.B. & Bovbjerg, D.H. Positive and negative mood: Association with natural killer cell activity. Psychology and Health, 1997, 12, 319-327.
5. Irwin, M., et al. Life events, depressive symptoms and immune function. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1987, 144, 437-441.
6. Linn, B.S., et al. Anxiety and immune responsiveness. Psychological Reports, 1981, 49, 969-970.
7. Jabaaij, L., et al. Influences of perceived psychological stress and distress on antibody response to lose dose rDNA hepatitis B vaccine. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1993, 37, 361-369.
8. Stone, A.A., et al. Evidence that secretory IgA antibody is associated with daily mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987, 52, 988-993.
9. Martin, R.A. & Lefcourt, H. Sense of humor as a moderator of the relation between stressors and moods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1983, 45, 1313-1324.
10. Siegel, B.S. Peave, Love and Healing. New York: Harper & Row, 1989,
11. Labbott, S.M., et al. The physical and psychological effects of the expression.