Newsletter - June, 2000

Other Physical Health Benefits Resulting from Humor and Laughter

Paul McGhee, PhD

    "There ain't much fun in medicine, but there's a heck of a lot of medicine in fun."
    (Josh Billings)

Cardiac Exercise

Many Americans have gotten caught up in the jogging, aerobics, and jazzercize crazes in recent years. If you hate to run or go to the gym to work out, laughter may be the exercise program you've been looking for. It's fun, requires no special training, shoes, or clothes. You don't even have to leave your couch or office to do it. And it takes no extra time from whatever you're already doing.

The next time you're having a good belly laugh, force yourself to laugh harder and longer than you normally do. Then put your hand over your heart when you stop laughing. You'll see that your heart is beating faster, even after 15-20 seconds of laughter. It will remain elevated for 3-5 minutes. This has caused some to refer to laughter as "internal jogging." You can give your heart a good workout several times a day, just by laughing. One physician noted that his patients who say they laugh regularly have lower resting heart rates. While this is no substitute for real exercise, many seniors and bed-ridden patients don't have the option of other forms of physical exercise. For them, laughter is FUNdamental to good cardiac conditioning.

Blood Pressure

Surprisingly little research has been conducted on the effect of laughter on blood presssure. As your heart beats more rapidly during laughter, it pumps more blood through your system, producing the familiar flushed cheeks. Not surprisingly, blood pressure increases during laughter, with larger increases corresponding to more intense and longer-lasting laughs. If this were a lasting increase, it might point to a harmful effect of laughter. When laughter stops, however, blood pressure may drop drop slightly below the level shown before the laughter started.1 This drop below the pre-laughter baseline is short-lived, however, so it's not clear whether regular laughter helps keep blood pressure within manageable limits--even though this is an effect one might expect..

There is some evidence that the relationship between blood pressure and humor may be different for men and women.2 Women who score higher on measures of sense of humor have been shown to have lower blood pressure than low sense of humor women, suggesting that a good sense of humor does help protect them against hypertension. A better sense of humor in this study, however, did not reduce the amount of blood pressure elevation among women during stressful situations. Men with higher humor scores did not show the generally lower blood pressure levels showed by women, but a better sense of humor did reduce the extent of their blood pressure increase under stress. More research will be required to sort these differences out, but these findings indicate that humor does offer some protection against the harmful effects of elevated blood pressure for both sexes.

In connection with job-related stress, individuals in higher-level occupations may want to make a special effort to improve their humor skills, since recent research has shown that the amount of stress-related elevation in blood pressure appears to be greater among those with higher-level jobs.3 Among African Americans, hypertension was greater among higher-level occupations in general--regardless of the stress of the moment.4


Laughter triggers a peculiar respiratory pattern which offers health benefits for certain individuals. In normal relaxed breathing, there is a balance between the amount of air you take in and breathe out. The problem is that when you are not breathing deeply, a considerable amount of residual air remains in the lungs. When you're under stress, breathing becomes even shallower and more rapid, reducing the amount of oxygen taken in and producing a still greater amount of residual air. This breathing also occurs more from the chest, instead of the diaphragm. (Relaxation techniques emphasize the importance of breathing from the diaphragm.) As this residual air stays in the lungs for longer periods of time, its oxygen content drops and the level of water vapor and carbon dioxide increases.5 The health risk here arises for individuals prone to respiratory difficulties, since the increased water vapor creates a more favorable environment for bacterial growth and pulmonary infection.

Frequent belly laughter reduces this risk by emptying your lungs of more of the air that's taken in. When you laugh, you push air out of your lungs until you can't push out any more. Then you take a deep breath and start the same process all over again. Each time you laugh, you get rid of the excess carbon dioxide and water vapor that's building up and replace it with oxygen-rich air.

Hospitalized patients with respiratory problems are often encouraged to breathe deeply and exhale fully, but nurses have difficulty getting them to do so. Most patients enjoy a good laugh, though, so many nurses have learned to tell them a joke from time to time or give them a comedy tape to view.

Emphysema and other respiratory patients often have a build-up of phlegm or mucous in their respiratory tracts. Nurses try to get them to cough to loosen up and expel these substances, but they generally don't enjoy coughing, so the phlegm builds up. When they laugh, however, they inevitably start coughing, producing exactly the effect the nurses want--and the patients have a good time in the process.

Perceived Health

Another way to determine the relationship between humor and health is to simply ask people about their health. This generally is referred to as "perceived health." Both college students and older adults (55+) who report using humor more often as a coping style perceive themselves to be in better physical health.6 A study of 36 executive women showed that those with higher scores on a measure of sense of humor reported fewer symptoms associated with physical health problems.7 In the study of patients in a rehabilitation hospital described earlier, 94% of the patients indicated that when they laughed, they felt better.8

[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 restaurant in Mexico City: "All of the water served here has been personally passed by the manager."

In a Tokyo department store: "Out nylons cost more than common, but you'll find they are best in the long run."

Instructions on a Japanese air conditioner: "Cooles and heates: If you want just condition of warm in your room, please control yourself."

At entrance of a shop in Majorca: "English well talking; here speeching American."

In a car-rental brochure in Tokyo: When passenger on foot have in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor."

1. Fry, W.F., Jr. & Savin, M. Mirthful laughter and blood pressure. Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Humor, Washington, D.C., 1982.
2. Lefcourt, H.M., et al. Humor as a stress moderator in the prediction of blood pressure obtained during five stressful tasks. Journal of Research in Personality, 1997, 31, 523-542.
3. Carroll, D., et al. The relationship between socioeconomic status, hostility, and blood pressure reactions to mental stress in men: Data from the Whitehall II study. Health Psychology, 1997, 16, 131-136.
4. Curtis, A.B., et al. Job strain and blood pressure in African Americans: the Pitt County study. American Journal of Public Health, 1997, 87, 1297-1302.
5. Fry, W.F., Jr. Humor, physiology, and the aging process. In L. Nahemow, K.A. McCluskey-Fawcett & P.E. McGhee (Eds.), Humor and Aging. San Diego: Academic Press, 1986, pp. 81-98.
6. Carroll, J.L. & Shmidt, J.L. Correlation between humorous coping style and health. Psychological Reports, 1992, 70, 402.
Simon, J. M. Humor and its relationship to perceived health, life satisfaction, and morale in older adults. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 1990, 11, 17-31.
7. Fry, P.S. Perfectionism, humor and optimism as moderators of health outcomes and determinants of coping styles of women executives. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 1995, 121, 213-245.
8. Schmitt, 1990.Schmitt, N. Patients' perception of laughter in a rehabilitation hospital. Rehabilitation Nursing, 1990, 15 (No. 3), 143-146.