Humor, Laughter and Pain – The Latest Research

This article marks the first in a series of E-zine articles that will examine the general topic of humor and health. In this series of articles, we will discuss specific ways in which humor contributes to both physical and mental/emotional health and well-being. There have been endless articles in the mass media about whether humor really is good medicine or not (everyone has long heard the statement “Laughter is the best medicine”). Twenty years ago, many of these articles made claims about humor’s impact on health that had no foundation in research. At conferences in recent years, I have even heard physicians make statements about humor and health that have no foundation in research. They made these statements because they had been stated so often in the media that they were assumed to be true. So this series of articles will inform you of just what the research says about what humor and a good belly laugh can do for your health.For the past 25 years there has been a steadily growing popular movement that I call the “humor and health movement.” The impetus for this movement came from the widespread influence of Norman Cousins’ 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins was suffering from a debilitating form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. He was in constant pain as a result of this condition. He and his doctors were aware of the research documenting the fact that negative emotion can increase pain, so they thought, “Why shouldn’t the opposite be true, as well?” If you do things to generate positive emotion in yourself, maybe this will reduce the pain. So he checked himself out of the hospital and into a nearby hotel. With a nurse present full time to monitor his condition, he invited friends over and watched a lot of comedy videos; these included Marx Brothers films, old Candid Camera shows, and other shows that he personally found very funny.He and his friends laughed a lot while watching these shows, and Cousins noticed right away that he began experiencing less pain during and after viewing them. Someone monitored the time actually spent laughing, and Cousins reported that just 10 minutes of belly laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep. This may not sound impressive to you, but if you’re in constant pain, the effect is a striking one.As the reports of this pain-reducing effect of humor and laughter became more and more widely known (because of the popularity of his book), researchers in the early 1980s began testing this idea in laboratory settings. Over 30 studies have now obtained support for Cousins’ initial observation that humor and laughter reduce pain. Supporting evidence has been obtained in both experimental settings (where pain is actually induced initially, followed by a determination of humor’s ability to reduce that pain) and among individuals suffering from chronic pain from a broad range of conditions. So this is one claim about humor and health you can consider well established.There is no agreement among researchers, however, on the reason for humor’s pain-reducing effect. Most newspaper articles discussing this topic over the past two decades have matter-of-factly attributed the pain reduction to endorphins-one of the body’s own built-in pain killers. The only problem is that there was never any research documenting this. It was an assumption made by Cousins’ doctors in the 1970s, and people simply kept repeating it as if it were a fact. It should be noted that in the past couple of years there has been one article showing increased endorphin production in response to humor/laughter, so there is some support for this. But there are also a couple of studies that failed to show that humor increases endorphin levels. So the jury is still out on this-even though there is no doubt about the pain-reduction effect.It should also be noted that we don’t know yet whether this pain-reduction is really due to the mental/emotional experience of humor or to the physical act of laughter. They occur together, obviously, and it is difficult to sort out which is really responsible for the reduced pain. As we shall see in future articles here, this same issue comes up when discussing any other health benefit established for humor.Another good candidate for explaining humor’s pain-reducing power is the muscle relaxation effect that occurs with laughter. (Certain muscles relax when you laugh whether you want them to or not; that’s why we fall back in our chair when we’re laughing hard. It is also why young children fall down and roll on the floor when they’re laughing hard.) This will be discussed in a future article.And, of course, humor is very good at mentally distracting us from the source of both physical and emotional pain. There is every reason to thing that the basic neurological pain-channeling mechanisms are influenced by this distracting power of humor.In the years ahead, we’ll sort out just how humor is able to reduce pain-as well as whether it’s really humor or laughter that is the key. But if you’re someone who suffers from chronic pain, you probably really don’t care why humor does this. The important thing is that it works. Groucho Marx noted this pain-reducing effect of humor long ago. He said, “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”Future articles in this series will consider the impact of humor on the immune system and specific disease conditions.