Newsletter - September, 2000

Impact of Negative Emotion on Health

Paul McGhee, PhD

    "We're all in this together--by ourselves."
    (Lily Tomlin, American comedienne)

One of the most important ways in which humor and laughter contribute to health and wellness lies in the power of humor to pull us out of negative emotional states, and substitute a more positive emotion in its place. Psychosomatic research has underscored for decades the negative impact of negative emotion (especially when the emotion is chronic) on health. This month, we will briefly discuss some of the research documenting the effect of negative emotion upon survival. Next month's article will focus on the effect of negative emotion upon symptoms associated with illness.


Researchers have shown that your emotional state can influence your odds of survival--at least under certain conditions. Several studies have shown that, among older people, the death rate for both men and women increases sharply following the death of their spouse.1 The greater the level of depression experienced, the greater the impact on the surviving spouse's health.

All of us have down days where we feel blue or depressed. The point at which this becomes a risk factor is when it persists. One study showed that among a group of adults given a test for depression, those who died of cancer 17 years later were twice as likely to have had high depression scores (17 years earlier) than those who developed no cancer at all.2 Another study showed that patients with AIDS Related Complex who had weaker beliefs that they could do things to influence the course of the disease were less successful in fighting off AIDS.3 These studies suggest that, at least in some circumstances, persistent negative emotion can put you at greater risk of death.

Among patients with heart disease, those with a pessimistic outlook about their ability to recover enough to eventually resume their daily routine were more than twice as likely as optimists to have died one year later, even when severity of condition was taken into account.4 Another follow-up study of patients recovering from heart attacks showed that those who scored high on tests of sadness and depression were eight times as likely as more optimistic patients to die within the next 18 months.5 Risk of death was tripled both among those who tended to hold in their anger and those judged to be very anxious.

The researcher who conducted the latter study sees the importance of helping heart patients reduce their pessimistic outlooks and negative emotions, but concluded that "we don't know how to change negative emotions." By improving your skills at finding and creating humor, especially in the midst of negative life circumstances, you will discover a tool for transforming many negative emotions into a more positive direction..

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 kind of fruit is found on every coin?
Clue: It starts with a "d."

2) What kind of key would be good to eat for dinner?
Clue: Americans generally eat these for Thanksgiving dinner.

3) What kind of ant is always a person?
Clue: What do you call a very young child?

4) What kind of room can never be entered by a person?
Clue: This room is actually a plant.
Clue: It's a kind of fungus.

5) If you're behind in a race, and you really want to win, what's the best food to eat?
Clue: Many people put this on their french fries.

1. Rees, W.D. & Lutkins, S.G. Mortality of bereavement. British Medical Journal, 1967, 4, 13-16.
Helsing, K.J., et al. Factors associated with mortality after widowhood. American Journal of Public Health, 1981, 71, 802-809.
2. Shekelle, R.B. Psychological depression and 17-year risk of death from cancer. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1981, 43, 117-125.
3. Temoshok, L. Clinical psychoneuroimmunology in AIDS. Paper presented at annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, San Francisco, 1986.
4. Associated Press. Pessimism can be deadly for heart patients. The New York Times, April 16, 1994, p. 8.
5. Associated Press. The New York Times, 1994, p. 8.

Answers to Pun Fun
1) Dates.
2) A turkey (tur-key).
3) An infant (inf-ant).
4) A mushroom.