A Really Laughable Diagnosis | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.08.2005
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A Really Laughable Diagnosis

Laughter and joy have long been known to be effective agents in fighting human pain and suffering. Now, a new study from Switzerland adds scientific proof of humor's therapeutic effects.


Laughter even seems to let people endure the worst kind of outfits

Studies have shown the benefits of a prolonged guffaw to strengthen the immune system and help people suffering from depression overcome their condition. These days, clowns are a standard fixture in children's clinics for their well-known ability to spread laughter and joy. Now, a new study by scientists from the University of Zurich has added to the empirical evidence supporting humor therapy.

John Cleese Porträtfoto Komiker

Monty Python comedian John Cleese is seen in this 1987 picture.

Willibald Ruch, the chair of the department of personality psychology and diagnosis, has been leading a study on the effects of comedy on pain. The participants in the study were all healthy at the outset, but subjected themselves to uncomfortable conditions for the sake of the study. They first watched funny films, such as Monty Python, to induce hearty laughter.

They were then asked to initiate a painful activity such as the "cold pressure test," in which subjects immersed a hand in icy water for as long as they could. After having laughed for a sustained interval prior to the cold immersion, the participants were more able to endure the pain. Ruch and his team wanted to know why.

To explain the results of the "cold pressure test," Ruch said there were many possibilities.

"The crazy thing about this research is that, in principal, there are many possible explanations," he told German public radio, Deutschlandfunk. "It could be the distraction, it could be the relaxation. It could be the increased distribution of endorphins. However, in separate studies, none of these single causes alone seems to work."

Film a pai n- killer?

Ruch went further into his experiment to find out whether the pain-lessening films shown to the participants had to be of a comedic nature in order for them to have an effect. The results were, once again, surprising.

When Ruch had the test subjects view non-comedic films, either dramas or tragedies, a distinct pain-reducing effect could be observed. This effect could only be observed, however, when the "cold pressure test" was administered immediately following the film viewing, at least for the non-comedic films.

Lachende Schülerinnen, Lachen

"If you waited half an hour, then there were no effects observable for the tragic films," Ruch said. "As for the comedic films, these continued to have an effect. This shows that whatever is triggered by viewing the comedic films sustains itself over time."

Strangely, the subjects did not consciously admit to being in a humorous mood half an hour after viewing the funny films.

"This is a really paradoxical result of our study," Ruch said. "The comedic films don't have a conscious effect after half an hour, but the physical endurance of pain after watching these films is equally strong as it was at the end of the film."

Laughter is the best medici n e

This result showed Ruch that the films did not have to be laughter-inducing in order for there to be a pain-reducing effect; however, for longer-term amelioration, it certainly helped. Perhaps this result alone is more important than a precise, scientific explanation of the phenomenon.

Ruch said he is hopeful that humor will be viewed by the medical community as a legitimate means for allowing patients to decrease their intake of pain killers. He is optimistic that more cooperative studies with hospitals can lead to more empirical proof of the pain-reducing effects of laughter through comedy.

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