Humor Therapy


The American Cancer Society formally states that humor therapy (laughter therapy) is the use of humor for the relief of physical and emotional difficulties. It is used as a complementary tool to promote health, enhance immune system performance, and cope with illness.


Laughter can reduce stress, promote good health, and enhance the quality of life. Humor has physiological effects that can increase pleasurable feelings, stimulate the circulatory system, respiratory system, immune system, and other systems in the body.


The medical profession considers happy humor to be safe, when used as a complementary therapy, although some people have complained that their sides ache after too much great comedy entertainment. (Chuckle)


Humor therapy is generally used to improve quality of life, provide some pain relief and reduce stress. Researchers have described different types of humor. Passive humor is created by observing a comic film, or reading a book, for example. Humor production is a type of humor that involves creating or finding humor in stressful situations. It is thought that being able to find humor in everyday events can be helpful. Our world is full of good and bad things. People who focus on the bad things experience higher levels of unhealthy stress. People who amplify the good things and find humor in the bad things that happen every day, tend to be healthier and a lot more fun to be around.


What does humor therapy involve?

The physical effects of laughter on the body involve increased breathing, oxygen use, and heart rate, which stimulate the circulatory system. Many hospitals and ambulatory care centers have incorporated special rooms where humorous materials, and sometimes clowns or comedians, are there to help make people laugh. Materials commonly used include movies, audio and videotapes, books, games, and puzzles. Many hospitals use volunteer groups who visit patients for the specific purpose of providing opportunities for laughter. There are endless opportunities for humorous entertainment outside the hospital setting. Laughing out loud seems to be even more effective than mere intellectual amusement.


Modern Application of Humor Therapy – Loretta LaRoche


Loretta LaRoche is a wonderful comedian with a wellness agenda. She is often featured on PBS and serves on the faculty of Boston's Mind-Body Institute. In her hilarious presentations, Loretta dispenses practical wisdom laced with frequent belly laughs while she lampoons the human potential movement and subtly delivers its most important messages. She demonstrates that laughter is important for reducing stress and maintaining a healthy life. Her comedy routines encourages viewers to look for the humor in every situation and use it to defuse stress.


LaRoche suggests using the power of humor to overcome the stress that is in all of our lives. Personal stories, told with heavy New York / Italian sarcasm, show that life is too short to sweat the small stuff. She believes in food and fun to smooth the bumps on the road of life. A recipe for her grandmother's spaghetti sauce is a riotous inclusion. Her live presentation style is at a steady, fast rate that sounds like spontaneous improvisation, but it is based on decades of outstanding work in professional stress management. Her voice, body language and facial expressions have natural ups and downs that create funny expressions and a believable conversational style.


"I'm always reminding people that the one constant you can count on is that things happen - and usually when you're not in the mood for them."


"Buy something silly and wear it. A Groucho Marx nose, mustache, and glasses are my favorite. When the stress seems unbearable, when you've really reached the limits of your endurance, go into a bathroom, look into the mirror, put on your glasses, and ask yourself, 'How serious is this?' "


"One night I greeted Bob at the door wearing nothing but his wing-tipped shoes. I was laughing hysterically about how I looked. Bob didn't crack a smile. Instead, he bellowed, 'What are the neighbors going to think?'

" 'I don't know,' I replied, 'I haven't shown them yet.' "


“Most of us don't realize what an impact we have on the world around us. A positive energy field is going to affect others in a beneficial way, even if you don't notice it at first. Why not ask for a standing ovation once in a while? When you go in to work, say, 'I came in--it wasn't easy. I could have gone somewhere else. I'd like a standing ovation.' "


You can search the Internet for “Loretta LaRoche” to find her outstanding videos, CDs and books that have helped hundreds of thousands of her fans over the years. Many enjoy exercising to her videos or driving while listening to her audio presentations again and again.


Ancient Wisdom: What is the history behind a happy heart?

Humor has been used in medicine throughout recorded history. One of the early mentions of the health benefits of humor is in the book of Proverbs in the Bible (“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine”). In the 13th century, some surgeons used humor to distract patients from the pain of surgery.


Positive images and expectations often lead to positive results, while negative thoughts can in the worst case produce depression, despair, unhealthy stress and eventually death. In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare wrote: “He made her melancholy, sad, and heavy; and so she died; had she being light like you of such a merry, nimble, stirring spirit, she might ha' been a grandma ere she died; and so may you, for a light heart lives long.”


Humor has also been widely used and studied by the modern medical community. Perhaps the most famous 20th century application of humor therapy involved Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review. Cousins claimed that he cured himself from a serious illness with his own regimen of laughter and food supplements.


What is the evidence?

The long-term evidence that humor is effective in treating cancer and other diseases is based on reports of individuals. Since humor therapy does not involve an expensive pill that can be patented by a pharmaceutical company, there is no significant funding source for an expensive, long-term scientific study of the effectiveness of humor therapy (despite thousands of years of documented human awareness of the healthy benefits of being merry). However, recent short-term clinical studies (see references below) have demonstrated that laughter has many immediate benefits that include positive physiological changes and an overall sense of well being.


One study demonstrated that neuroendocrine and unhealthy stress-related hormones rapidly decrease during episodes of happy laughter, which partially explains how humor helps relieve stress. A good laugh relaxes tense muscles, lowers blood pressure and speeds more oxygen into your body and mind.


Medical research scientists Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley Tan at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine documented 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 immune system killer cells, and increases the number of T cells that have helper / suppresser receptors. The simple summary is that laughter stimulates the immune system, off-setting the immunosuppressive effects of unhealthy stress.


During stress the adrenal gland releases corticosteroids (which are quickly converted to cortisol in the blood stream) and that elevated levels of cortisol have an immunosuppressive effect (limiting your ability to fight diseases including mutant DNA cancer cells). Berk's research demonstrates that laughter lowers cortisol levels and thereby protects our immune system.


All of our emotions and moods directly effect our immune system. A sense of humor allows us to perceive and appreciate the silly incongruities of life, and provides healthy moments of joy and delight. Positive emotions trigger neurochemical changes that reduce the immunosuppressive effects of stress.


A person's physical / mental reaction to a potentially stressful situation is not dependent entirely on external events and stimuli, but also depends very much on the perception / interpretation of the event, and the meaning given to it. How you view a situation determines if you will respond to it as threatening or challenging. Will it produce unhealthy stress or motivation to improve the situation. Perception is far more important than reality. Happy optimists are NOT realists, but they do generally live longer, happier, healthier more joyful and productive lives than those who focus on negative, depressing realities of life.


Humor gives us a different perspective on the many challenges of our complicated lives. If we can make light out of the situation, it is no longer a threat to us. We have already discounted its effect. With such an attitude of detachment, we feel a sense of self-protection and control in our environment. Bill Cosby is fond of saying, "If you can laugh at it, you can survive it."


The world is full of good and bad things. Those who optimistically amplify the good things (beyond reality) and learn to laugh at the silly / stupid things that happen to us every day are a lot more fun to be around.


It's sometimes difficult to force a laugh in tense situations. But that's precisely when we need a sense of humor the most. One trick for finding humor in the worst of situations is to exaggerate things absurdly out of all proportion. When your mental perception escalates to the point of being ludicrous, you have no choice but to smile and react in a healthier way. Laughter helps put a bad situation in a more positive, constructive perspective. Now you can calm down and begin to deal with the problem and think creatively about a superior solution.


A belly laugh is really good for you. It relieves muscular tension, improves breathing, and regulates the heart beat. Watch comedy shows and laugh. Or attend comedy shows. Read comics or humor books. Share funny situations with your best friends, so you can relieve stress and improve communication between you.


Many experts feel that pain-and-stress relief, combined with positive mental images can enhance immune system performance and slow some of the processes of aging, by influencing direct central nervous system connections to the lymph nodes and various hormonal secretions (by increasing good ones and decreasing bad ones).


We now understand the neurochemistry of why humor leads to an immediate increase in pain tolerance. In most individuals, laughter stimulates the release of specific neurotransmitters that enhance pleasure, calm our nerves, and help control pain. Opioid peptides (opioids) are a group of endogenous (internally produced) neural polypeptides (amino acid chains such as endorphins and enkephalins). Endogenous opioids are released when we laugh. Opioids bind to central nervous system opiate receptors and naturally produce some of the pharmacological properties of powerful drugs like morphine, without the dangerous side effects of plant-produced opiates. Opioids are released when we are happy (positive self image), have an orgasm (especially in a supportive romantic relationship) or exercise vigorously (the “runner’s high” or the “dancer’s high”).


The largest concentration of opioid receptors is in the frontal lobe of our brain, which significantly influences human cognitive processes, including self-image, creativity, self-actualization, romance and interpersonal bonding. Adrenaline and improved cardio vascular circulation enhance the effect of opioids, which helps us understand why boisterous physical laughter and creative humor production are more effective than passively watching The Comedy Channel. A pleasurable scalp massage can improve the flow of opioids to our frontal lobe. Laughter plus exercise (see Joyful Dancing) are particularly synergistic (1 + 1 = 3).


Opioids are addictive – we are highly motivated to return to the happy mental images that make us “feel good.” Happy humor helps us live longer, healthier, more productive lives. People with a good sense of humor are much more fun to be around. Have you ever seen a personal ad looking for a partner with no sense of humor? Have you ever seen a job situation that could not be made a bit better with a measure of appropriate humor? Situation improvement may begin when a Dilbert cartoon helps us realize how “dumb” our current situation is, and motivates us to consider superior alternatives. A merry heart not only is a healthy heart, but it also can lead to many other long-term lifestyle improvements.


Taking an improvisational comedy class can be very therapeutic.  You will laugh a lot (in a socially safe non-critical environment) and study the endless mechanisms of spontaneous ad hoc humor. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation (by Charna Halpern, Del Close, Kim Johnson, Mike Myers) is a good book to help you get started, but the maximum benefit requires a classroom training situation. Other students in a beginning improv comedy class are generous with their laughter, which encourages you to experiment with developing your own ad hoc sense of humor in a friendly social setting. The social confidence that comes from knowing that you have a good sense of humor can help lonely depressed people overcome the stress associated with an unhealthy fear of poor social interaction skills.


Improv comedy is a very healthy mental aerobic activity. Ad hoc improv classes teach friendly students to listen closely to what others are saying, and to enthusiastically live “in the moment.” These are skills that have many other applications and benefits throughout life. You are never too old to take an Improv class – it will greatly enhance your life.


Humor production improves our creative (problem solving) cognitive capacity, strengthens our memory, enhances social communication skills, and our ability to think on our feet. All of this vigorous mental activity, combined with the many benefits of a merry heart, help us be happy, enjoy the world around us, and delay or avoid the onset and impact of devastating neurodegenerative diseases (various forms of age, genetic, disease, free-radical and toxin-related dementia).


Smiling, holding hands, laughing and dancing can be very happy, healthy activities. Group dance classes can help many people overcome the problem of two left feet. Comedy classes can help improve anyone’s understanding of what is and is not funny. Our sense of humor and ability to dance are NOT genetic traits – they are learned intellectual and physical habits and behaviors – the more we understand them, the more we do them, the healthier we will surely become.


In contrast to Joyful Dancing, painful drudgery exercise (on a go-no-where treadmill), or passively watching comedy in front of a television, may offer limited health benefits, but taken together, synergistic, addictive activities like laughing and exercise can enhance the well being of a great many otherwise unhappy, unhealthy, depressed and lonely people whose bodies and minds are atrophying daily.


We cannot view humor therapy (or any other lifestyle behavior) in scientific clinical isolation, without also considering the complex mystic/holistic spirit/mind/body benefits that humor has on our entire being, longevity, health, happiness and overall well being. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”



Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, et al. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci. 1989;298:390-396.


Complementary and Alternative Methods. Humor therapy. American Cancer Society Web site. Available at:


Seaward BL. Humor's healing potential. Health Prog. 1992;73:66-70.


Weisenberg M, Tepper I, Schwarzwald, J. Humor as a cognitive technique for increasing pain tolerance. Pain. 1995;63:207-212.


Ziegler J. Immune system may benefit from the ability to laugh. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1995;87:342-343.


Patch Adams 1998 DVD with Robin Williams


Gesundheit!: Bringing Good Health to You, the Medical System, and Society Through Physician Service, Complementary Therapies, Humor, and Joy, by Patch Adams, Maureen Mylander


House Calls: How We Can All Heal the World One Visit at a Time, by Patch Adams, Jerry Van Amerongen (Illustrator), Robin Williams


5 Facts of Humor's Balancing Act (

Your sense of humor allows you to constantly create new realities to enrich and bring balance to your life. Along with laughter, it provides you with greater physical health, helps you cope with perspective and gives you more happiness. Here are the facts to humor's balancing act:


1. RELIEVES YOU OF TENSION AND STRESS. Humor and laughter combat and create opposite effects. When you laugh, you are cheerful, upbeat, playful, light-hearted, you let go, vent, relax and unwind.


2. GIVES YOU AN AEROBIC AND INTERNAL WORKOUT. The diaphragm is the large muscle which separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity and gets a great workout when we laugh heartily. Our respiration is enhanced, blood pressure is lowered and the amount of oxygen in the blood stream increases. Ever laughed so much it hurt? The movement of the diaphragm also stimulates surrounding organs, such as the stomach, kidneys and liver, acting as an internal massage.


3. STIMULATES YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM. University studies show laughter lowers serum cortisol levels, increases T-cell production, lowers blood pressure and increases the number and activity of disease-fighting killer cells. These are all natural Ahealth substances,@ endorphins and encephalons that free us of pain and illness.


4. GIVES YOU PERSPECTIVE THAT HELPS YOU COPE. Your sense of humor has the power to manage, endure and lighten any load. By not allowing yourself to take things too seriously, you gain a greater ability to see change as challenging, not threatening. It gives you the capacity to cope with stress and difficulties in ways that are positive, uplifting and successful. Humor and laughing helps detach us from the “funk” we may be in. We then get a sense of self-protection and control over our environment.


5. EMPOWERS AND ENHANCES YOUR QUALITY OF LIFE. A lighthearted spirit always has the power to see you through. When you are troubled, feeling low, depressed or down, the experience of laughter, if even just for the moment, banishes feelings of loneliness, anger and fear. Humor and laughter can transcend any predicament with feelings that are lighthearted, carefree and hopeful. Humor has the power to turn any situation around by drawing our attention away from upsets. When you experience more laughter, smiles and feel carefree, your happiness increases with the spirit's energy and powers the will to live. You make your life sweeter.


Markus De Lorne: "Humor and most notably laughter, frees the mind, eases the faculties and causes the soul to lift. Thus, they must not only be looked on as great pleasures but also as superior in the composition of human life."


See Happiness Is A Learned Mental Attitude, Not A Situation


See Joyful Dancing


See Psychoneuroimmunology


See Improv Comedy Class


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