Humor Improves Health

ByJeff Carpenter

B O S T O N, Nov. 19, 2001 -- It turns out television might be good for you after all — at least if it's funny.

New research from the University of California's Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Irvine concludes that merely anticipating a funny event improved people's mood.

Previous work from these researchers found that laughter can increase the body's ability to fight off infection by increasing levels of key immune system components, and also by decreasing levels of stress hormones associated with poor immune function.

This new finding, however, is the first to suggest that anticipating a humorous event may do the same. The results were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego.

"We've demonstrated that watching a funny video can stimulate the body's ability to manage stress and fight disease," said Lee Berk, lead researcher for the study and professor of medicine at the UC Irvine College of Medicine. "But this is the first time we've seen that just anticipating such an event can change the body's responses."

Funny Videos Improve Health

For the current study, the moods of 10 men were evaluated two days before, 15 minutes before, and immediately following a viewing of a funny video of their choice. At each point their moods were evaluated using a standard test known as the profile of mood states, which assess levels of tension, anger, depression, fatigue, and confusion.

According to Berk, these negative mood categories have all been shown to increase stress hormone levels and reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.

The results showed that two days before viewing the video, levels of depression among the men dropped 51 percent, confusion went down 36 percent, anger fell 19 percent, fatigue 15 percent, and tension 9 percent.

Immediately after the men viewed the video, these mood levels dropped even more. Depression and anger both dropped 98 percent, fatigue fell by 87 percent, confusion was down 75 percent, and tension decreased by 61 percent.

These mood changes suggest to the researchers that anticipating a humorous event could boost the immune system much the way laughter does.

Berk is working to show that the improvements in mood observed during the anticipation of watching a funny video translates into actual molecular changes in the immune system. "I do have the [raw] data that shows that the stress hormones that suppress the immune system are modulated in a beneficial direction relative to anticipation," said Berk.

In other words, early experiments have shown that the sheer anticipation of a funny event helps the body fight off illness.

Laughter Clubs

Berk also points out that a number of hospitals have "humor carts," as well as programs that bring clowns in for children to raise spirits and possibly boost the immune system. Berk is even working on a program to provide humor prescriptions to patients by having them fill out questionnaires that identify their humor preferences.

Another humor approach to combat illness is the "laughter club," which is used by the Memphis Tennessee Cancer Foundation. Its motto is "laugh anyway."

"A laughter club is like an aerobics class," said Steve Wilson, the psychologist who developed "laughter clubs" and president of World Laughter Tour Inc. "A group of people get together at a designated place and time with an instructor that we call a laughter leader, and they go through a routine of giggling and guffawing. We say that laughter clubs prevent hardening of the attitudes."

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