Newsletter - April, 2000

Humor and Laughter Reduce Pain

Paul McGhee, PhD

    A man went to his doctor complaining of painful headaches. After concluding his tests, the doctor said, "There’s only one solution, but it’s extreme: castration.” The patient said he could never resort to that, and he walked out.
    As the weeks went on, his headaches got so painful that he couldn’t take it any longer. Finally, he went back to the doctor and agreed to the castration. The operation was a big success, and the patient couldn’t believe that his headaches were finally gone. He felt like a new man. He was so excited about his new life that he went to a tailor and bought a whole new set of clothes--suits, shirts, socks, even underwear.
    In jotting down all the appropriate information, the tailor finally asked, "What size underwear do you wear?”
    "Forty,” replied the man.
    "Oh no," said the tailor. "You're a 44. If you wear underwear that tight, you’ll get terrible headaches!”

I lived in Paris for three years in the 1980s. I spent a lot of time in a little neighborhood cafe, and almost every time I stopped by for an espresso, there was an old man at his corner table laughing with friends. He rarely went more than 10 minutes without laughing. I was amazed at this and asked him how he managed to stay in such a wonderful mood all the time. To my surprise, he said his laughter didn’t always mean he was in a good mood. He laughed for two reasons. One was in order to get into a good mood. He lived alone and didn’t like it. He knew that laughter would lift his spirits, so he forced himself to laugh until he really was feeling good.

The other reason was that he had arthritis and had a lot of aches and pains. One day he and his friends were doubling up with laughter about pranks they had played when they were kids. He noticed that his arthritis pain had disappeared during the laughter and didn’t show up again until an hour later. From that day on, he was a laugher. It was his way of managing pain. He took control of his pain in a way that also improved the quality of his life. Recent research has supported his approach to pain management. When elderly residents of a long-term care facility watched funny movies, the level of pain they experienced was reduced.1

Norman Cousins drew the attention of the medical community to this phenomenon in his book Anatomy of an Illness, as noted above. His spinal disease left him in almost constant pain. But he quickly discovered while watching comedy films that belly laughter eased his pain. In his last book, Head First: The Biology of Hope, he noted that 10 minutes of belly laughter (just counting the laughing time) would give him two hours of pain-free sleep.

To give you an idea of Cousins’ sense of humor, one morning a nurse brought in a specimen bottle (to obtain a urine sample), and left it on his breakfast tray. There was also a bottle of apple juice on the tray, so Cousins poured some of it into the specimen bottle and finished his breakfast. When the nurse returned, she held the bottle up to the light and said, "Hmmm, it looks a little cloudy today.” Cousins picked it up and said, "Well then, let’s run it through again.” And he drank it! Since this story is widely shared, other patients have been known to try the same trick. If you try it, be sure to keep track of which bottle is yours!

On another occasion, Cousins was about to take a bath in a tub filled with an oily substance designed to ease some of his joint problems. He described it as "a cross between stale oatmeal and used crankcase oil.” When the nurse left for a moment, leaving the bottle containing the oily stuff near the tub, Cousins poured most of it down the drain. When the nurse returned, he held up the bottle and said, "I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t get the rest of this down.”

Dr. James Walsh, an American physician, noted in his 1928 book Laughter and Health, that laughter often reduced the level of pain experienced following surgery and appeared to promote wound healing, but medical researchers seem to have been unaware of Walsh’s observation. It was only after the publication of Cousins’ book that researchers began to study laughter’s ability to reduce pain.

Several studies have showed that watching or listening to humorous tapes increases the length of time individuals can endure having their hand in ice water before experiencing discomfort.2 Amazingly, people who found the comedy material funnier were able to leave their hand in longer than those who found it less funny. Individuals who created humor more often themselves also showed reduced sensitivity to pain from the ice water, in comparison to those who created little humor.3 The level of pain experienced during hydrotherapy (a very painful experience) by two young girls with burns was also found to be reduced by watching cartoons during hydrotherapy.4

"Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully.”
(Max Eastman)

Having a good sense of humor may yield the same pain-reducing benefits provided by watching a comedy video. Using a procedure called transcutaneous end nerve stimulation to induce pain, individuals who watched a humorous video reported less pain than those who watched a nonhumorous video.5 But, those who watched the non-humorous video who scored high on a measure of sense of humor showed just as much resistance to discomfort and pain as did people who watched the funny video. So a good sense of humor does seem to help in managing pain.

[Excerpt 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

(Language confusion designed to help you practice using your sense of humor in English.)

In a Vienna Hotel: "In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the porter."

In a Bangkok dry cleaners: "For best results, drop your trousers here."

In a Bangkok temple: "It is forbidden for foreigners to enter a woman, even if dressed like a man."

In the window of a Swedish furrier: "Fur coats for the ladies, made from their own skin."

Detour sign in Kyushi, Japan: "Stop! Drive sideways."

1. Adams, E.R. & McGuire, F.A. Is laughter the best medicine? A study of the effects of humor on perceived pain and affect. Activities, Adaptation, and Aging, 1986, 8, 157-175.
2. Cogan, R., et al. Effects of laughter and relaxation on discomfort thresholds. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1987, 10, 139-144.
Zillmann, D., et al. Does humor facilitate coping with physical discomfort? Motivation and Emotion, 1993, 17, 1-21.
Weisenberg, M., et al. Humor as a cognitive technique for increasing pain tolerance. Pain, 1995, 63, 207-212.
3. Nevo, O., et al. Humor and pain tolerance. International Journal of Humor Research, 1993, 6, 71-78.
4. Kelly, M.L., et al. Decreasing burned children’s pain behavior: Impacting the trauma of hydrotherapy. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1984, 17, 147-158.
5. Hudak, D.A., et al. Effects of humorous stimuli and sense of humor on discomfort. Psychological Reports, 1991, 69, 779-786.