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Humor: Health for You & Your Ministry

by Sam Stodghill, Psy.D.

“A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

At a recent Mass a priest told a funny story to reinforce his message of sacrifice and giving. A mother preparing pancakes for her two young sons tried to insert a moral lesson when they argued over who would get the first one: “Boys, if Jesus were here, I bet he would say, let my brother have the first pancake; I can wait.” Without skipping a beat, the five year-old turned to his younger brother and said, “Why don’t you be Jesus?” The congregation had a good laugh, the message was reinforced, and the local diner was overrun with hungry, pancake-ordering parishioners a little over an hour later.

The priest achieved his goal of conveying an important message to his audience, but research suggests that his use of humor could have had at least two additional positive consequences. First, individuals experience a range of physical, cognitive and emotional benefits from the physical act of laughter.1,2,3 In addition, research suggests that the act of sharing a humorous moment as a group can be beneficial for the members’ relationships with one another, thereby resulting in a positive impact on the health and stability of the group as a whole. 4

Reflection Questions

  • How can I create more opportunities for laughter in my daily life?
  • How can I share humor with those around me in a way that enhances our connection with one another?

Positive Effects– Individuals

There are a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits associated with humor, such as: 1-3

Physical

  • Laughter causes an immediate increase in heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen consumption relaxes muscles that results in a period of decreased heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.
  • Laughter can boost elements of the immune system:
    • Increases activity of some protective cells (e.g. tumor fighting lymphocyte cells)
    • Decreases levels of some stress hormones (e.g. cortisol)

Cognitive & Emotional

  • Alters our perspective on potentially stressful events
  • Facilitates healthy detachment, giving us a sense of control over our reactions to difficult situations
  • Decreases levels of self-reported anxiety
  • Increases opportunity to express/release uncomfortable emotions

Positive Impacts – Groups

Shared humor has a variety of social benefits, such as: 4

  • Helps break ice with strangers
  • Distracts from discomfort
  • Fosters closeness and makes people feel part of a community
  • Boosts morale and fosters trust
  • Increases engagement in work

Sharing Humor Appropriately

  • Laugh at yourself, but not at others
  • Laugh with others about a shared experience, problem or challenge
  • Don’t use humor to make fun of differences between people or groups, or foster conflict or unnecessary competition
  • Use humor in a way that does not detract from taking your responsibilities seriously
  • Use humor to send positive messages, not to bemoan a situation or express complaints/grievances
  • Use types of humor that maintain respect for the beliefs and values of the people with whom you are interacting
  • Be mindful not to overuse humor
  • Take time to check your motivation for using humor – before you share it.

Additional Resources

To learn more ways to bring laughter into your life, see the following resources:

  1. Carolina Health and Humor Association: www.carolinahealthandhumor.org
  2. The Humor Project: www.humorproject.com
  3. Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor: www.aath.org

To learn more about ways to use humor appropriately, see the following resources:

  1. Kuhn, C. (2003). The fun factor: Unleashing the power of humor at home and on the job. New York, NY: Minerva Books. www.drcliffordkuhn.com
  2. Moreall, J. (1997). Humor Works. Amherst, MA: HRD Press. www.humorworks.com

Sources Cited

1Wooten, P. (1996). Humor an antidote for stress. Holistic Nursing Practice, 10(2), 49-55.
2Bennet, M. & Lengacher, C. (2008). Humor and laughter may influence health: III. laughter and health outcomes. Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 5(1), 37-40.
3Bennet, M. & Lengacher, C. (2009). Humor and laughter may influence health: IV. humor and immune function. Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 6(2), 159-164.
4Stambor, Z. (2006). The chuckle connection. Monitor On Psychology, 37(6), 60-61.