Mind Matters --November 2005
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Healthy Humor
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- November 2005

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I have a friend who I think laughs a little too much. She has a great sense of humor, but most of the time she laughs at other people. She uses her humor in a snide way. She very rarely laughs at herself. I have heard that humor can have health benefits, but I wonder if all humor is the same. What do you think? -- Signed: Confused About Humor.

    Dear Confused:

      Thank you for writing! It would seem that there should be some downside to behavior that is clearly mean or rude. However, other than possibly setting up some social difficulties, your friend's behavior and attitude probably do not have any significant impact on her health.

      The belief that humor should have a positive effect on health has been around for quite some time. Although the phrase "laughter is the best medicine" was likely invented by the editors of the Reader's Digest Magazine, they probably paraphrased a verse from the Bible found at Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

      Laughter and humor, of course, are not exactly the same thing. Humor is more of an attitude and laughter is more of a behavior. In the case of your friend who seems to be able to laugh a lot at other people in a mean-spirited way, she may benefit from the act of laughing but it cannot be said that she has a healthy sense of humor. In addition, it is possible to over-utilize humor in our lives which can lead to certain consequences, such as not taking serious things seriously enough.

      In my opinion, humor is one of the ingredients to one of the most important mental wellness factors -- resilience. Resilience is the ability to deal with, recover from, overcome or "bounce forward" from hardship, misfortune, change or shock. Along with spirituality, humor is a major factor in resilience. Both allow us to keep a balanced point of view and a centeredness as we traverse life's peaks and valleys. Humor allows us to laugh at ourselves -- to keep our imperfections and our failures in perspective.

      Since humor is an attitude or a very subjective state of mind, it is a difficult subject for scientific research. Laughter is easier to study, since it is a behavior and not an attitude. Studying smiling is even easier, since it is just one component of laughter. There have been many studies of the facial expressions and the facial muscles that are involved in the laughter process.

      In my opinion, the most significant research has involved studying whether voluntarily making a smiling facial expression can affect moods. Such research has tested the so-called "facial feedback hypothesis." The results imply that if a person wants to be happier, they simply have to change their body to what it would be if they were happy (for example, by smiling), and a "happiness feeling" will follow. You can test this yourself. This is not news to the leaders of laughter club groups that had their beginnings in India in the early 1990s. Reportedly, there are several resources in the Seattle area for laughter club participation. Contact information can be found on the Internet at www.WorldLaughterTour.com.

      Many other scientists have looked into the effects of laughter and their conclusions are (1) laughter decreases hormones and neurochemicals associated with the stress response, (2) laughter enhances our immune system, and (3) laughter and a sense of humor decrease heart disease risk. There are now weight loss programs based on laughter exercises.

      I hope this is helpful. For more information about laughter, humor and health, please visit www.LaughterGood.com. For more information about mental wellness, please visit www.MentalWellness.ws. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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