Newsletter - July, 2000

Psychoneuroimmunology & Humor

Paul McGhee, PhD

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

The exciting new work (discussed in the first six issues of this newsletter) now being done on humor and health is part of a broader research movement in the health sciences focusing on the impact of the mind on the body. In fact, an entirely new area of medical research has developed in the past two decades, with the unwieldy name of "psychoneuroimmunology.” Every year, more and more studies demonstrate that your thoughts, moods, emotions, and belief system have a fundamental impact on some of the body’s basic health and healing mechanisms. One expert in the area, Dr. Ron Anderson, noted in Bill Moyers’ book Healing and the Mind that "There is no question that your body and mind tied together help you fight infection.”1

Whether or not you get sick depends on your body’s ability to fight off infection and disease. In 1980 (prior to the discovery of the AIDS virus), the departing editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, estimated that 85% of all human illnesses are curable by the body’s own healing system. We’ve known for a long time that good nutrition, exercise, adequate sleep, avoidance of harmful drugs, and sanitary personal habits aide the body’s ability to do this. We now know that building a positive focus in your life is equally important.

The body’s healing system responds favorably to positive attitudes, thoughts, moods, and emotions (e.g., to love, hope, optimism, caring, intimacy, joy, laughter, and humor), and negatively to negative ones (hate, hopelessness, pessimism, indifference, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc.). The actual impact of any of these emotions on our ability to remain well--or get well once we're sick--is still not well understood. But there is now ample evidence that your day-to-day emotional state does influence both short-term and long-term well being. So you want to organize your life to maintain as positive a focus as possible.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid negative emotions. You need to find ways to express whatever emotions you feel. Candace Pert, former Chief of the Section of Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, studies health influences at the neurochemical level. She noted recently that "repressing emotions can only be causative of disease.”2 Failure to find effective ways to express negative emotions causes you to "stew in your own juices” day after day, and this chronic immersion in negativity is what appears to produce harmful influences on health.

Surprisingly, negative emotions appear to have an enhancing effect on the immune system in the short run.3 So short-term negative emotional states do not pose a health threat. The threat comes when you get caught up in negativity as a habitual style. You need techniques that keep you from wallowing in resistance-lowering negativity. The longer negative states persist in your mind/body, the greater the likelihood that they will lead to some negative influence on your health. Love is probably the most powerful tool for overcoming negativity. Humor, in my view, comes a close second.
The mechanisms by which your mind promotes health and healing are only gradually becoming understood, but your body certainly knows what to do . All you have to do is set up the right conditions for the mechanisms to operate.
While the focus here is on humor, there is good reason to believe that any effective coping skill will help sustain health and well being. One study showed that people who cope less well with life’s stresses were three times more likely to contract the flu during a flu epidemic.4 This is not surprising, since poor copers have depressed levels of natural killer cell activity, while those judged to be coping well show higher levels of natural killer cell activity.5
It’s tempting to think that good coping skills are essential only for the big stressors in life. However, the way you handle minor daily hassles has been shown to be a better predictor of illness than the way you respond to less frequent major stressors.6 By learning to improve your sense of humor, and use it in an active way as a coping tool, daily hasles will be much more easily dealt with. And you'll be helping to prevent succumbing to illness at the same time that you learn to make daily stress more manageable.

At some future date, we will focus in this newsletter on how to develop humor coping skills. If you'd like to begin improving your humor skills now, see the last 18 monthly articles at my own web site, Click on "Humor Your Tumor" and go back to the archives of prior articles.

[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

Since non-native speakers of English are the main readers of this column, this section will provide an exercise in learning to play with language each month. Use the clue give to try to come up with your own funny answer for the missing part of the punch line before checking the answer given below. These are children's riddles, but are still not easy to answer.

1) What's the cruelest thing you'll ever find a cook doing?
Clue: It involves doing something with eggs and cream.
Clue: ______ the eggs and ______ the cream.

2) What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?
Clue: "Time" here does not refer to time of day.

3) When does a person become a country in South America?
Clue: It's the opposite of when you get hot. (But find another word for "cold."
Clue: This word is the name of a country.

4) Which is heavier, a half or full moon? Why?
Clue: What is the opposite of heavy? Think of the double meaning associated with this word.

5) What do liars do after they die?
Clue: Think of a way to say "they continue to lie" and "they don't move" in three words.
Clue: They lie ______.

1. Moyers, B. Healing and the Mind. New York: 1993.
Goleman, D. & Gurin, J. (Eds.) Mind/Body medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health. Yonkers, NY: Consumer Reports Books, 1993.
2. Pert, C. The chemical communications. In B. Moyers, 1993.
3. Kemeny, M. Emotions and the immune system. In B. Moyers, Healing and the Mind. New York: 1993.
4. Cluff, L.E., et al. Asian influenza: Infection, disease and psychological factors. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1966, 117, 159-164.
5. Kiecolt-Glaser, J., et al. Psychosocial modifiers of immunocompetence in medical students. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1984, 46, 7-14.
Locke, S.E., et al. Life change stress, psychiatric symptoms and natural killer cell activity. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1984, 46, 441-453.
6. Justice, B. Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1987.

Answers to Pun Fun
1) Beating the eggs and whipping the cream.
2) Time to get a new fence.
3) When she becomes Chile (chilly).
4) A half moon, because a full moon is lighter (in the sense of brighter, or giving off more light).
5) They lie still.