“Funny or die” has a whole new meaning, thanks to a large study published in April in Psychosomatic Medicine. Women with a strong sense of humor were found to live longer in spite of illness, especially cardiovascular disease and infection. Mirthful men seem to be protected against infection.
Norwegian researchers reported findings from a 15-year study on the link between sense of humor and mortality among 53,556 women and men in their country. The team assessed the cognitive, social and affective components of humor using a validated questionnaire, and examined death from specific conditions: heart disease, infection, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The findings show that for women, high scores on humor's cognitive component were associated with 48 percent less risk of death from all causes, a 73 percent lower risk of death from heart disease and an 83 percent lower risk of death from infection. In men, a link was found only for the risk of death from infection—those with high humor scores had a 74 percent reduced risk. The gender differences could be due to a slight decline in humor scores as the men aged, the authors suggest. No association was found for the social and affective components of humor.
The cognitive component is a fairly stable aspect of personality and may influence the way individuals attribute meaning to everyday experiences, says study co-author Sven Svebak, a professor emeritus of neuromedicine at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In this way, it may buffer against conflict in social interactions and overall stress, preventing the escalation of stress hormones, Svebak says. When these hormones, such as cortisol, are chronically elevated, they suppress immune functions.
Although there is a genetic component that determines sense of humor, it is also developed through socialization. “I expect that children who lack adult models for the use of humor as a coping resource in the face of challenges are less likely to activate their sense of humor to cope with everyday life when they grow up,” he says. But if you had a humorless childhood, never fear—studies show people can learn to embrace the absurdity of life at any age.