Laughter as Medicine

Spring 2015, Living Well Magazine

A research study, which was conducted at the Indiana State University Sycamore Nursing Center and made up of 33 healthy women, has indicated that laughter being used ‘as medicine’ is more than just an old-fashioned concept and is proven to have a direct and positive influence on the immune system.

The study involved two groups of women, watching either a humorous or a non-humorous video, then self-reporting their humour response (mirthful laughter) and stress arousal levels.  Immune function was also measured by comparing the amount of Natural Killer Cells circulating through the bloodstream of the participants.

Natural Killer Cells are a type of white blood cell that form part of the immune system and can kill tumours and abnormal or infected cells, while sparing healthy cells.  As part of a thriving immune system Natural Killer Cells are essential for good health, and where cancer is present in the body their role is critical.

Participants first rated themselves on a humour response scale before being tested for Natural Killer Cell activity.  Higher humour response scores correlated with positive changes in Natural Killer Cell activity, and it was concluded that humour has a positive influence on immune function.

This study is a useful insight into the role of laughter in therapeutic situations, and illustrates the link between humour and physiological changes in the body.

With low Natural Killer Cell activity being linked to decreased disease resistance and increased morbidity in persons with cancer and HIV, laughter may be a useful cognitive-behavioural intervention for people living with these diseases.

Published in 2003, this study also looked at the role of laughter in overall stress management, with decreased stress levels showing in the participants who also rated in the humour response group of respondents.  The link between stress and immune function has also been well established in other research efforts.

The use of humour as a beneficial tool for improved immune function and stress management has merit for its ease of accessibility and demonstrable effect… a laugh costs nothing and is a natural part of the range of human responses.

Bennett MP, Zeller JM, Rosenberg L, McCann J. The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity. Altern Ther Health Med. 2003 Mar-Apr;9(2):38-45.