May 8, 2000 -- As a veteran television executive involved in sitcoms like
Roseanne and Home Improvement, Sherry Hilber watched weekly as
studio audiences writhed with laughter. "I'd see them leave at the end of
the show and think, 'Maybe for the rest of the night something is happening
inside their bodies.' "
Intrigued, Hilber boned up on the limited literature about humor's effects
on physical health. She found a mixed bag of upbeat anecdotes, tantalizing
small studies, and contradictory results.
Seeking to use her comedy knowledge for a larger cause, Hilber established
Rx Laughter (http://www.rxlaughter.org), a nonprofit project dedicated both to
helping the ill via humor and to supporting more scientific research on the
topic. Thanks to her fund-raising efforts, researchers at the University of
California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are set to begin exploring whether funny videos
can promote healing.
Sidestepping the Banana Peel
The UCLA/Rx Laughter researchers hope to sidestep some of the banana peels
that have tripped up previous researchers.
For instance, if comedy helps, is it laughing aloud or internal amusement
that matters most? No one knows. The UCLA/Rx Laughter researchers will start by
screening videos Hilber assembled for 100 elementary school children to
determine what they find reliably funny. Initially, they'll count how often
each kid laughs and also ask whether they thought the video was funny, looking
for correlation. (The researchers chose to focus on kids partly because they
readily respond to humor and laugh more easily.)
Next, investigators will examine the nervous and immune system effects of
laughter: heart rate, blood pressure, and the presence of the stress hormone
cortisol in saliva, before and after the funny videos.
Eventually, the researchers expect to explore whether comedy changes how
kids perceive and respond to pain. Ultimately, they want to see if humor can
change the kids' actual health, not just their stress hormones. For example,
they may measure how fast wounds heal after surgery and how fast white blood
cells rebound to their normal levels after being lowered by chemotherapy.
"You have to pass the 'so what?' test," says the study's
co-director, Margaret Stuber, MD, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and
biobehavioral sciences. "It may be very interesting to us that we can
change salivary cortisol, but does that actually change anything that
The concept that comedy could improve health makes some medical sense.
Studies show that anger, depression, and pessimism impair the immune response,
increase surgical recovery and wound-healing times, and can even contribute to
higher death rates. And what better way to counter a negative outlook than
through a dose of comedy? "Humor and distressing emotion cannot occupy the
same psychological space," says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical
psychologist and president of the American Association for Therapeutic