Humor and Healing : the Mind Body Connection

“As it is not proper to cure the eyes without the head, nor the head without the body; so neither is it proper to cure the body without the soul. ” ? Socrates(Cousins, 56) The word, to heal, comes from the root word “haelen” which means to make whole. Bringing together the body, mind and spirit can be healing. The word humor itself is a word of many meanings. The root of the word is “umor” meaning liquid or fluid (Moyers, 221). In the Middle Ages, humor referred to an energy that was thought to relate to a body fluid and an emotional state.

This energy was believed to determine health and disposition. In modern dictionaries, humor is defined as “the quality of being laughable or comical” or as “a state of mind, mood, spirit”. Humor enhances the creative process and is one of the coping devices used to combat stress and disease. Humor can be used successfully in the classroom, in the workplace, in therapy and counseling, and in medicine to assist in the healing process (Cousins, 78). Laughter improves self-esteem, enhances social interaction, and generally makes life more enjoyable.

Laughter can provide a cathartic release, a purifying of emotions and release of emotional tension. Laughter, crying, raging, and trembling are all cathartic activities which can unblock energy flow. Laughter is more than a visual and vocal behavior. It is accompanied by a wide range of physiological changes (Swencionis, 162). During vigorous laughter the body brings in extra oxygen, shudders the internal organs, causes muscles to contract, and activates the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands.

This results in an increase in the secretion of endorphins (internally produced morphine-like molecules). This “internal jogging” produces an increase in oxygen absorption, increase in heart rate, relaxation of the muscles, and increases in the number of disease fighting immune cells (Moyers, 230). Humor is a quality of perception that enables people to experience joy even when faced with adversity. “Stress is an adverse condition during which one may experience tension or fatigue, feel unpleasant emotions, and sometimes develop a sense of hopelessness or futility.

Responding to these demands while protecting oneself from the potential harmful impact will help one to remain healthy” (Dreher, 27). Hans Selye, a pioneer researcher in psychosomatic medicine, defines stress as “the rate of wear and tear within the body” as it adapts to change or threat (Dreher, 20). In his book, Selye clarified that a person’s interpretation of stress is not dependent solely on an external event, but also depends upon their perception of the event and the meaning they give it; how you look at a situation determines if you will respond to it as threatening or challenging.

As an individual in crisis gathers new information about the impact of the crisis on his life, he begins to change the meaning of the crisis for his life. Early devastating thoughts are replaced with more realistic ones. As this process progresses, the meaning of the crisis to the individual’s life changes, and therefore, the emotional impact changes. As the emotional impact lessens the individual becomes more receptive to a humorous perspective about the crisis. Illness and disease can result from an inability to cope effectively with daily adversity.

Daily stress unchecked over time is the biggest culprit and perpetrator of illness. There may be some truth to the old saying, “It’s the little things that get you. ” If laughter is so powerful it can help to cure diseases, think what it can do to help with everyday annoyances and stress (Dreher, 20). Stress has been shown to create unhealthy physiological changes. The connection between stress and high blood pressure, muscle tension, immunosuppression, and many other changes has been known for years. There is now proof that laughter creates the opposite effects (Swencionis, 152).

It appears to be the perfect antidote for stress. The field of Psychology has for a long time recognized the beneficial influences of humor. Most neuroimmunologists acknowledged that a sense of humor is a necessary attribute of self-actualized, fully functioning people. The use of humor as a method of stress reduction and healing became popular in the 1980’s following the publication of Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. Cousins, suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling life-threatening disease, claimed that laughter was a significant feature of his treatment and recovery.

Believing that negative emotions had a negative effect on his health, he theorized that the opposite was also true, that positive emotions would have a positive effect. He followed traditional medical treatment, with added vitamin C and plenty of laughter. Cousins, although one of the best known proponents of using positive emotions to improve health, was certainly not the first to assert such a relationship. As early as the 1300s, Henri de Mondeville, professor of surgery wrote: “Let the surgeon

take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient’s life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him, and by having someone tell him jokes. ” At Loma Linda University School of Medicine’s Dept. of Clinical Immunology, Dr. William Berk has produced carefully controlled studies showing that the experience of laughter lowers serum cortisol levels, increases the amount of activated T lymphocytes, increases the number and activity of natural killer cells, and increases the number of T cells that have helper/suppressor receptors.

In short, laughter stimulates the immune system, off-setting the immunosuppressive effects of stress (Dienstfrey, 73). This research is part of the rapidly expanding field of psychoneuroimmunology that defines the communication links and relationships between our emotional experience and our immune response as mediated by the neurological system. It is proven that, during stress, the adrenal gland releases corticosteroids and that elevated levels of these have an immunosuppressive effect. Berk’s research demonstrates that laughter can lower cortisol levels and thereby protect our immune system.

Activation of T cells provides lymphocytes that are “awakened” and ready to combat a potential foreign substance. Natural Killer (NK) cells are a type of immune cell that attacks viral or cancerous cells that do not need sensitization to be lethal. They are always ready to recognize and attack an aberrant or infected cell (Dienstfrey, 75). This becomes very important in the prevention of cancer. Cells within our bodies are constantly changing and mutating to produce potential carcinogenic cells. An intact immune system can function appropriately by mobilizing these natural killer cells to destroy abnormal cells.

Receptor sites are important as a communication link between the brain and the immune system. Emotions trigger the release of neurotransmitters from neurons in the brain. These chemicals enter the blood stream and “plug into” receptor sites on immune cells. When this occurs, that cell’s activity can be altered in either a positive or negative direction. Many cells within the body have different receptor sites on their surface; of particular interest in this research are those on the immune cells. Other researchers have supported these findings.

One researcher, at Harvard, showed that the activity of natural killer cells is decreased during periods of increased life change which were accompanied by severe emotional disturbance; whereas subjects with similar patterns of life change and less emotional disturbances had more normal levels of NK cell activity. At the VA Medical Center in San Diego in 1987, Irwin noted that NK cell activity decreased during depressive reactions to life changes. At the Ohio State University School of Medicine, Janice and Ronald Glaser studied the cellular immunity response patterns of medical students before tests.

Their work showed a reduction in the number of helper T cells and a lowered activity of the NK cell during the highly anxious moments just before the examination. Salivary immunoglobulin A is the first-line defense against the entry of infectious organisms through the respiratory tract. At SUNY, Stone revealed that salivary immunoglobulin A response level was lower on days of negative mood and higher on days with positive mood. This finding was quickly confirmed by two other researchers.

Dillon, working at Western New England College; found subjects showed an increased concentration of salivary IgA after viewing a humorous video; while Lefcourt, from University of Waterloo in Onterio, showed that subjects who tested strong for appreciation and utilization of humor had an even stronger elevation of salivary IgA after viewing a humorous video. All this research, done in the last ten years, helps us understand the mind-body connections. The emotions and moods we experience directly effect our immune system.

A sense of humor allows us to perceive and appreciate the incongruities of life and provides moments of joy and delight. These positive emotions can create neurochemical changes that will buffer the immunosuppressive effects of stress (Sobel, 138). This study indicates that if one is encouraged and guided to use humor, they can gain a sense of control in their life. Use of humor represents what Kobassa calls cognitive control (Dienstfrey, 80). One cannot control events in the external world but one can has the ability to control how one views these events and the emotional response that one chooses to have.

Further research would be needed to determine how long these effects persist. Humor perception involves the whole brain and serves to integrate and balance activity in both hemispheres. Dr. Robert Derks, at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, has shown that there is a unique pattern of brain wave activity during the perception of humor. EEG’s were recorded on subjects while they were presented with humorous material. During the setup to the joke, the cortex’s left hemisphere began its analytical function of processing words. Shortly afterward, most of the

brain activity moved to the frontal lobe that is the center of emotionality. Moments later the right hemisphere’s synthesis capabilities joined with the left’s processing to find the pattern — to ‘get the joke’. A few milliseconds later, before the subject had enough time to laugh, the increased brain wave activity spread to the sensory processing areas of the brain, the occipital lobe. The increased fluctuations in delta waves reached a crescendo of activity and crested as the brain ‘got’ the joke and the external expression of laughter began.

Derks’ findings shows that humor pulls the various parts of the brain together rather than activating a component in only one area. In conclusion, humor positively affects all systems of the body: muscles, organs, the neuroendocrine system, and the immune system. Physiologically this “internal jogging” increases heart rate and lowers blood pressure. It has been proven that there are stabilizing and restorative connections between the nervous system and the emotions, and that one’s psychological state can augment one’s immune response. Truly then, laughter is the best medicine.


Cousins, Norman. Anatomy of an Illness, W. W. Norton & Company Inc. , New York, 1979. Pages 39-150. Dienstfrey, Harris. Where the Mind Meets the Body, HarperCollins, New York, 1991. Pages 71-90. Dreher, Henry. The Immune Power Personality, Penguin Group, New York, 1995. Pages 7-45. Moyers, Bill. Healing and the Mind, Bantam Doubleday, New York, 1979, Pages 213-237. Ornstein, Robert and Sobel, David. The Healing Brain, Simon & Schuster Inc. , 1987. Pages 138-160. Ornstein, Robert and Swencionis, Charles. The Healing Brain, a Scientific Reader, Guilford Press, New York, 1990. Pages 147-158