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The Link between Humor & Health… Plus, Test Your Funny Bone with the Last Laugh Survey



By Rhonda Beaman, EdD


“I’ve always been aware of the child in me. Humor, especially the best of it, is very childish. It can be wise, philosophically valuable, or helpful to the world. But childishness is one of the marvelous things about being human.”
---Steve Allen, comic and humorist

Humor is a special kind of joy. Humor often results from a peculiar and unexpected insight, a cleverness that takes us by surprise. Humor creates laughter, which is immediate, explosive, and brief. Laughter is often a sudden release of tension between the mind and the emotions, which may be artificially set up by telling a joke.

What Is Humor?

Some of you will laugh at George Carlin, and some of you won’t. Some think Jerry Lewis’s brand of humor makes him a comic genius (okay, only if you are French), and some prefer Steve Martin. No neotenous (the retention of youthful traits into adulthood) trait has a simple definition. Each is unique to a person, place, and circumstance. So it is, too, with humor.

Experts say that several obvious differences among people affect what they find humorous. Research confirms what neoteny teaches: The most significant difference between what’s funny to one person and what’s funny to another seems to be age.

For instance, infants and children are constantly surprised by the things that go on around them, and they find these things funny. What’s funny to a toddler consists of short and simple concepts. The pre-teen and teenage years are, almost universally, awkward and tense. When you are dissatisfied with being older and would like to go back to your teens, just think of algebra and you’ll snap out of it! Lots of adolescents and teens laugh at jokes that focus on sex, food, and authority figures. Adolescence is a time when people use humor to protect themselves.

As we mature, both our physical bodies and our mental outlooks grow and change. There’s a new language to our humor by the time we have grown up. We have experienced more life, more tragedy, and more success. Along with the language, our sense of humor has also grown and changed; it’s now more subtle, more tolerant, and less judgmental.

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop laughing.”   -- Michelle Pritchard, actress and dancer

Laughter is triggered by something we find humorous. There are three traditional theories about what people find humorous:
1.   Humor is the experience of incongruity. Someone falls down in a situation where a fall is not expected. Or the incongruity may relate to concepts or thoughts, often illustrated by the punch line of a joke or a cartoon caption. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies anticipate what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion, and is influenced by our past experience and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly switch gears. We now have new emotions, backing up a different line of thought. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We experience this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.
2.   The superiority theory of humor relates to jokes that focus on someone else’s mistake, stupidity, or misfortune. We feel superior to this unfortunate person, and experience a certain detachment from the situation. So we are able to laugh about it.
3.   Moviemakers have effectively used the relief theory of humor for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, directors use comic relief at just the right moments. A director builds the tension or suspense as much as possible, and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment or funny moment, relieving the audience of pent-up emotions.

Laughter is a way to cleanse our systems of built-up tension and incongruity. According to psychologist Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, “The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress.”

“I don’t feel old. In fact, I don’t feel anything until noon. Then it’s time for my nap.”
-- Bob Hope, comic, on turning 100

Steve Sultanoff, PhD, director of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, sums it up this way: “For me, humor is comprised of three components: wit, mirth, and laughter. Wit is the cognitive experience, mirth the emotional experience, and laughter the physiological experience. We often equate humor with laughter, but you do not need to laugh to experience humor.”

The most important definition of humor, however, is your definition. What do you find funny? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then humor is in the funny bone of the receiver. And we all have a funny bone.


He (or She) Who Laughs Lasts

Appreciating humor can keep you mentally fit, adding enjoyment and fun to your life. Few activities are as mentally demanding and intellectually stimulating as humor. It’s no accident that in one section of the world’s most respected IQ test, exam takers are asked to arrange cartoon pictures to tell a story.

Humor and laughter may even help protect you against a heart attack. A recent study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in a variety of situations than people of the same age without heart disease. “The ability to laugh—either naturally or as a learned behavior—may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer,” says Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “We know that exercising, not smoking, and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list.”


Watch a Funny Movie and Call Me in the Morning

Humor and laughter may have other benefits besides helping to fight heart disease. Doctors Lee Berk and Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California have conducted research showing that laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and increases muscle flexion. Laughter, they say, boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting cells. There’s more: Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being. Laughter is an easy pill to swallow; it’s free and has only positive side effects.

“As I got older, I developed furniture disease. My chest fell into my drawers.”
-- Loretta LaRoche, stress expert and humorist

Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens abdominal muscles. As if all that weren’t enough, it’s estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or exercise bike. Think of all those runners hitting the pavement, expressions of grim resolve and miles of strain on their drawn faces. (If anyone made running look fun, then more of us would do it.) Laughing at one Marx Brothers movie could cut that running time in half.
And there’s even more. Further studies from Loma Linda University show that laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. Laughter keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. An alert, active brain is a good piece of equipment at any age.

According to the Geriatric Psychiatry Alliance, depression affects 15% of older Americans, or about six million people. Suicide is always a risk for those who are depressed, and in fact, 25% of suicides occur with people who are more than fifty years old. Study after study confirms that laughing elevates moods. In fact, many psychologists now use humor as a therapeutic tool to battle depression.

Striving—and often it does take striving—to see the humor in life, and attempting to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them, will help your disposition and the disposition of those around you. Do family and friends leave your home with smiles on their faces? Is it a pleasant experience to visit you?

Many of us used to dread visits to our grandparents’ homes: old grumpy people with sour dispositions and too many things you couldn’t touch. Always being told to keep the noise down and weird mushy stuff to eat. It was torture. But I was lucky. Besides my grandmother Meme, I also had Grandma Echo. She was a lively redhead who was witty with words and wrote poems to make us laugh. Like this one:

A Good Bit of Advice
 There is nothing the matter with me,
I’m as healthy as I can be.
I have arthritis in both of my knees
And when I talk, I talk with a wheeze!
My pulse is weak, my blood is thin
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in!
My teeth are bad and they have to come out
And my diet I hate to think about.
I am overweight and I can’t get thin
But I’m awfully well for the shape I’m in!
The moral is, as this tale we unfold,
That for you and me who are growing old
It’s better to say “I’m fine” with a grin
Than to let them know the shape we’re in!
-- Echo Rose Clark

Echo lived in almost constant pain from a botched spinal surgery, gangrene in the knee, and a condition that made too much scar tissue grow inside her body. But she was always ready and willing to have some fun, saying, “I’ll be in pain and feel rotten if I sit home, and I’ll be in pain if I go out and have some fun, so I’m going out to have some fun.” Not only is that statement applicable to all of us, it’s a perfect example of the way the language of life affects the living of life.

Echo was great at one-liners, too. One day when she was in her eighties, we went out to lunch. As we approached the restaurant, an older gentleman smiled, winked, and held the door open for her. “Hey Grandma,” I said, “You’ve still got it.” Without missing a beat she replied, “Yeah, but at my age, who needs it?”

Your ability to laugh at yourself is a valuable accomplishment. It gives you enjoyment, connection, and good cheer as a defense against the bores and the boring, the sedate and the solemn, the dreary and the dull. The ability to perceive what’s amusing in the somber and serious, as well as in the comic, adds greatly to the language of your life.

“The Doctor says, ‘You’ll live to be eighty!’
‘I am eighty!’
‘See, what did I tell you?’
-- Henny Youngman, comic


Taking Humor Seriously

Babies as young as six weeks respond positively to smiling faces—and avoid frowning faces. I’m still prone to do that, aren’t you? When a baby is twelve weeks old, laughter emerges. In listing humor as a neotenous trait, Ashley Montagu explained, “The development of a sense of humor is important for without it, life becomes dreary business. It is the sense of humor that renders life a great deal more endurable than it would otherwise be, and much more amusing.” Clearly humor is one of our greatest and earliest natural resources. Every day provides lots of material for amusing others and ourselves. People are drawn to a smile, even if that smile is on a well-worn face.

Human laughter is a defining trait of our species; we are the only creatures on earth who have the neurophysiologic mechanisms to do it. Humor is essential to our mental health. When taken seriously, it can help us grow young in five ways:

Humor . . .
1.   helps us connect with others.
2.   reduces stress by giving us perspective.
3.   replaces distressing emotions with pleasurable feelings.
4.   changes our behavior and increases energy.
5.   keeps us young because it just feels good.

To create a neoteny-rich life, may I suggest that we take the practice and planning of humor seriously, and that we laugh often to live well?


What’s So Funny?

Writer Edward Hoaglund said, “Life is moments, day by day, not a chronometer or contractual commitment by God. The digits of one’s age do not correspond to the arrhythmia of one’s heart or to the secret chemistry in our lymph nodes that, mysteriously going rancid, can betray us despite all the surgery, dentistry, and other codger-friendly amenities that money buys. Nor do good works keep you off the undertaker’s slab. But cheeriness, yes maybe. Cheery, lean little guys do seem to squeeze an extra decade out of the miser above.”

The following survey will help you determine if you’re as funny and prone to laughter as you think you are or ought to be.

Last Laugh Survey

In this questionnaire, you’re going to measure your cheeriness, sense of humor, and habits of laughter. You’ll find scenarios that you may have faced at some time. Imagine what you would do in each scenario, or take a moment to recall a similar scenario. Then record the number beside the phrase that best reflects your response.

A.  You are on vacation and you see someone you know from college or high school. How would you respond?

1.   I would probably not bother speaking to the person.
2.   I would talk to the person but avoid using much humor.
3.   I would find something to smile about as we reminisce.
4.   I would find something to laugh about with the person.
5.   I would laugh heartily with the person.

B.  You’re awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night by your grandchild running into your room to tell you his or her silly dream. What would you do?

1.   I wouldn’t be particularly amused.
2.   I would be somewhat amused, but I would not laugh.
3.   I would be able to laugh at something funny my grandchild said.
4.   I would be able to laugh and say something funny to my grandchild.
5.   My grandchild and I would laugh together.

C.  You accidentally hurt yourself and have to spend a few days in the hospital. During that time, how would you behave?

1.   People would have to draw the short stick to be the visitor, because I am not amused.
2.   I would ask for any magazine or book to read.
3.   I would request funny movies or reading material.
4.   I would find the situation funny.
5.   I would laugh heartily much of the time with my visitors.

D.  One day when you’re bored and have no commitments, you decide to do something you enjoy with friends. To what extent would you respond with humor that day?

1.   The activity we’d choose wouldn’t involve much smiling or laughter.
2.   I would smile sometimes but wouldn’t find an occasion to laugh out loud.
3.   I would smile frequently and laugh at times.
4.   I would laugh aloud quite frequently.
5.   I would laugh heartily much of the time.

E.   You are watching a movie or TV program with some friends, and you find one scene particularly funny, but no one else seems to find it humorous. How would you most likely react?

1.   I would think that I must have misunderstood something, or that it wasn’t really funny.
2.   I would smile to myself but wouldn’t show outward amusement.
3.   I would smile visibly.
4.   I would laugh out loud.
5.   I would laugh heartily.

F.   You have a romantic evening with someone you care for deeply. How would you behave?

1.   I would probably tend to be quite serious in my conversation.
2.   I would smile occasionally but probably wouldn’t laugh much.
3.   I would smile frequently and laugh from time to time.
4.   I would laugh aloud quite frequently.
5.   I would laugh heartily much of the time.

G.  You are eating at a fine restaurant and the waiter accidentally spills a drink on you.

1.   I would not be particularly amused.
2.   I would be amused but not show it outwardly.
3.   I would smile.
4.   I would laugh.
5.   I would laugh heartily.

H.  In choosing your friends, how desirable is it for them to be easily amused and able to laugh in a variety of situations?

1.   Not very desirable.
2.   Neither desirable nor undesirable.
3.   Quite desirable.
4.   Very desirable, but not the most important characteristic.
5.   It’s the most important characteristic I look for in a friend.

I.    How would you rate your likelihood of being amused and laughing in a wide variety of situations?

1.   Very little.
2.   Less than average.
3.   About average.
4.   Above average.
5.   My most outstanding characteristic.

Add up the numbers you recorded. A score of 27 or higher may mean that you have the added longevity and “youthening” of the neotenous traits of humor and laughter; you may indeed have the last laugh. If you scored less than 27, it may be time for you to add a laugh track to the background of your life.

Last Laugh Survey reprinted from You’re Only Young Twice: 10 Do-Overs to Reawaken Your Spirit by Ronda Beaman, EdD. Copyright © 2006 by Ronda Ann Beaman. All rights reserved. Published by VanderWyk & Burnham.


Do You Have Humor Impairment?

“Humor,” said comic Mel Brooks, “keeps the elderly rolling along, singing a song. When you laugh, it’s an involuntary explosion of the lungs. The lungs need to replenish themselves with oxygen. So you laugh, you breathe, the blood runs, and everything is circulating. If you don’t laugh, you’ll die.”

Sometimes it’s not easy to lighten up. For most people, using humor effectively requires practice and planning. You need to build your humor repertoire so you can access it when you need it. Collect cartoons, one-liners, jokes, anecdotes, and the like. Why not memorize one joke a day, building your memory while making others laugh? Develop your own sense of humor: Take a stand-up comedy class, or use humor every chance you get. Remind yourself to have fun. It’s okay to be foolish on occasion, and it’s good for you, too.

“Unfortunately, many people do not consider fun an important item on their daily agenda,” notes test pilot Chuck Yeager, perhaps best known as the first test pilot to break the sound barrier. “For me, that was always the highest priority in whatever I was doing.” Take a laugh break instead of a coffee break. When something bad happens, pretend to be your favorite comedian—how would you react? Spend time with people who help you smile, laugh, and look at the bright side. Get together regularly with these people. Start with a tee-hee, build up to a chuckle, and then go for it: A BIG BELLY LAUGH! Pretty soon you’re laughing, your endorphins are rushing, and you begin to feel better. To laugh or not to laugh is not even a question. You know what a young spirit would choose. You are that young spirit, and it’s always your choice.


Excerpted from You’re Only Young Twice: 10 Do-Overs to Reawaken Your Spirit by Ronda Beaman, EdD. Copyright © 2006 by Ronda Ann Beaman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission VanderWyk & Burnham. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-789-7916 or click here.

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