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The Connection Between Humor and Health: Kind of Complicated

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At some point or another, you’ve probably seen someone reference research which suggests that having a good sense of humor is linked to better health outcomes. Sometimes, this is referenced as more or less a fact — we know this to be true. And sometimes, the point is stretched yet further: therefore, actively working to have a sense of humor can help you stay healthy.

But when you look at some of this research, things are actually not quite so simple. In a post published today on BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett nicely explains the limitations of some of the health-humor studies and deftly unpacks why they don’t say what they seem to.

The research in question this time around is an article consisting of a series of studies published in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.

Let’s let Jarrett explain two of the studies’ setups:

Heidi Fritz at Clarkson University and her colleagues began by conducting a diary study with 21 women and 1 man diagnosed with the chronic pain condition Fibromyalgia Syndrome. The participants first completed baseline questionnaires about their physical health, psychological state, their tendency to see the funny side of things (for example, they were asked whether they would typically experience mirth in situations such as a waiter spilling a drink over them), how much socialising and support they’d had with friends and relatives recently, and how much they tended to reappraise challenges, such as looking for the positives in a difficult situation. Then the participants spent the next four days completing diary entries several times each day about their physical and emotional state.

A second study involved just over 100 undergrad students answering questions about their psychological and emotional state, their tendency to find things funny and make jokes, and they also recalled a previous distressing event and how much it continued to affect them.

As Jarrett explains, the results suggested that, overall, those with better senses of humor were more likely to handle certain types of stressors, as well as the lingering effects of trauma. But: “[T]he obvious problem with these first two studies is that it might simply be that the less distressed participants were better able to experience humour, rather than their inclination for humour reducing their stress levels or, in the case of the first study, their physical symptoms.” This is a potential problem with basically all correlational research, of course, and it’s why it’s frustrating to see so many people extract “X causes Y!” takeaways from studies that are a bit more complicated.

What’s interesting about this particular article is that, as Jarrett explains, a third study was designed to test the causality question — that is, whether a sense of humor causes better health and more resilience — but “it failed, statistically, to establish that a stronger inclination for humour at baseline was directly associated with less distress at follow-up.”

So what we’re left with are some ambiguous correlations — interesting in their own right and worth probing forward. Which is fine! That’s science. But science is complicated, and the stories we tell should about it should reflect that.

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