Newsletter - The Laughter Remedy - January, 2001

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Do People with a Good Sense of Humor Get Sick Less Often?

We have seen in past articles that humor and laughter positively influence our body in ways that should sustain health, but does having a good sense of humor actually stay healthier? Do they get sick less often? Unfortunately, little research has been done on whether a better sense of humor actually helps keep you from getting sick. This kind of research is easy to do, so perhaps someone reading this article will take the initiative to do it.

Since people with a better sense of humor have higher IgA levels, and those with higher levels of salivary IgA are less likely to get colds 1 or be infected with Streptococcus,2 humor should reduce the frequency of colds. The only study to directly examine this question found that the impact of one’s sense of humor upon colds depends on the kind of sense of humor you have.3 It was only individuals whose sense of humor took the form of seeking out and appreciating humor who had fewer and less severe colds/flu than their low humor counterparts.

Surprisingly, those whose sense of humor took the form of initiating humor more often did not have fewer or less severe colds/flu. The researchers argued that being a person who likes to tell jokes or otherwise initiate humor takes them into more frequent contact with other people, which serves to expose them to infectious agents more often, robbing them of the advantage that a more active sense of humor otherwise offers. Obviously, more research is required to clear up this confusing picture.

The importance of active use of one’s sense of humor in producing humor’s health benefits was confirmed in another study in an unusual way. It found that among a group of mothers with newborn infants, those who actively used humor to cope with the stress in their lives had fewer upper respiratory infections--and their infants also had fewer infections.4 This seemed to be because these mothers had higher levels of immunoglobulin A in their breast milk. Consistent with this finding, another study showed that mothers with low levels of IgA at the time of birth had babies who showed more illnesses in the first six weeks postpartum.5 So breast-feeding mothers now have all the more reason to build plenty of laughter in their life every day.

Among adults, if we look at bodily symptoms alone, independent of any diagnosed illness, there is some evidence that individuals who have more negative reactions to humor (finding a lot of different types of humor aversive or objectionable) report more bodily symptoms and complaints.6 Students complaining of cardiovascular symptoms and gastroenterological symptoms also have been shown to have this more negative reaction to humor.7

Coronary heart disease (CHD) has long been linked to the so-called Type A personality. One pair of researchers observed over 25 years ago that only type B individuals use humor as a coping tool in dealing with stress and hostile feelings.8 Hostile humor has also been found to be the main kind of humor enjoyed by Type A patients, while Type B patients enjoy non-hostile as well as hostile humor.9

This is consistent with the findings showing a close relationship between hostility and heart disease. While laughter at hostile humor must provide some of the benefits described above for CHD-prone individuals, those benefits are clearly not enough to offset the bodily effects caused by hostility to begin with. Developing non-hostile aspects of one’s sense of humor to counteract this effect is essential for Type A individuals.

While a great deal of additional work needs to be done to make a convincing case that improving your sense of humor helps sustain better health in the long run, these findings are a good start. In addition to the positive ways in which humor promotes health, don't forget the finding (discussed in an earlier article) that humor and laughter reduce the level of stress hormones in the blood. This should help counter the long-term damaging effects of stress hormones on the body.

If the ability to sustain a lighter attitude in the midst of life's daily stresses does help promote health and prevent illness, clearly, the sooner you begin making the effort to improve your own humor skills the more you'll benefit from the health-promoting effects of humor and laughter.

[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

1. Two ropes walk into a fine restaurant. The waiter asks the first rope, "Are you one of those ropes?" "Why yes," stammered the rope. "Well, we don't serve your kind," said the waiter, as he threw him out.
The second rope decided he'd better disguise himself, so he tied himself into a knot, and made his two ends all ragged. The waiter then walked over and asked, "How about you, are you one of those ropes?" "I'm a ____________," said the rope.
CLUE: It's a way of saying "no," but of describing what he's just done to himself, as well.

2. A well-known singer was tired of singing alone all the time, but he could never get a partner to join him. Finally, he solved the problem by going out and buying a ___________ kit.
CLUE: What kind of kit do you buy when you want to make something yourself (something that may be complicated)?

3) We all pitied the poor cow that tried to jump over a barbed wire fence. It was a(n) __________ disaster.
CLUE: A familiar phrase, which refers to the part of a cow where milk comes from.

1. Callow, K.A. Effect of specific humoral immunity and some non-specific factors on resistance of volunteers to respiratory coronavirus infection. Journal of Hygiene, 1985, 95, 173-189.
Jemmott, J.B. III & McClelland, D.C. Secretary IgA as a measure of resistance to infectious disease: Comments on Stone, Cox, Valdimirsdottir, and Neale. Behavioral Medicine, 1989, 15, 63-71.
2. Smith, D.J. & Taubman, M.A. Effect of local deposition of antigen on salivary immune responses and reaccumulation of mutans streptococci. Journal of Clinical Immunology, 1990, 10, 273-281.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Annie, C.L. & Groer, M. Childbirth stress: An immunologic study. JOGN Nursing, 1991, 20, 391-397.
6. Hehl, F.J. Beziehungen zwischenkorperlichen Beschwerden und Humor. Zeitschrift fur Klinische Psychologie, Psychopathologie und Psychotherapie, 1990, 38, 362-368.
7. Hehl, F.J. & Ruch, W. The location of sense of humor within comprehensive personality spaces: An exploratory study. Personality and Individual Differences, 1988, 6, 703-715.
8. Friedman, M. & Rosenman, R.H. Type A Behavior and Your Heart. New York: Knopf, 1974, p. 298.
9. Goldstein, J.H., et al. Humor and the coronary-prone behavior pattern. Current Psychological Research Review, 1988, 7, 115-121.

Answers to Pun Fun
1. Frayed knot (afraid not).
2. Duet-yourself (do it yourself).
3. Udder (utter).