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Is laughter truly the best medicine? Insights from a literature review

A recent literature review conducted at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) has found that humor is associated with increased well-being, particularly psychological well-being.

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Raquel Oliveira, a student from the Doctoral Program in Psychology at Iscte and the first author of this work, explains, “It is unclear why people laugh, but there is evidence that it might be related to socialization. For example, people tend to laugh more in the presence of others, and humor has been associated with strengthening social bonds.”. In addition to their social value, humor, and laughter have been associated with different types of well-being.


The research team wanted to understand the relationship between humor and well-being. Patrícia Arriaga, a researcher from CIS-Iscte and Raquel’s supervisor, clarifies that “There are many theories about humor and well-being, and each theory has its own understanding of humor and well-being. This presents a challenge when trying to comprehend whether humor has an impact on people’s well-being because it depends on the style of humor and levels of well-being being addressed”. By analyzing 128 empirical studies with adult participants, the research team wanted to systematically summarize the evidence regarding the association between laughter, humor, and well-being. To that end, they analyzed different components of humor, such as humor styles and comic styles.


According to Raquel Oliveira, “Humor styles refer to the usual ways in which individuals use humor in their daily lives, and they can be classified into four categories: affiliative (positive, directed to others), self-enhancing (positive, directed to oneself), aggressive (negative, directed to others), and self-defeating (negative, directed to oneself).”. Comic styles are based on the classical literature of humor and comprise different types of humor, such as satire, irony, and slapstick, and laughter, on the other hand, is a specific type of vocalization that is typically (but not always) associated with humor. The researcher further notes, “We also found studies that had explored how people use humor as a coping mechanism to deal with stress and adversity (coping humor), and sense of humor – the individual's ability to perceive and appreciate humor.”.


This review looked into different dimensions of well-being, namely psychological, physical, social, and general well-being. João Barreiros, the third author of the article, explains the differences between them: “Psychological well-being refers to an individual's subjective evaluation of their own life, such as including their sense of purpose and personal growth, for example. Physical well-being refers to an individual's physical health, and social well-being is related to a sense of belonging and connection to others. General well-being refers to a person’s broader sense of happiness and life satisfaction.”


The results of the review indicate that humor styles seem to be the most extensively studied. Results from this body of literature support the idea that positive styles of humor (affiliative and self-enhancing) are linked with greater psychological well-being. There was also an association between positive humor styles and social and general well-being. While the relation between humor and physical well-being is less explored in the literature, results suggest that self-enhancing humor is linked with greater physical well-being. However, no consistent association was observed between any other styles of humor and physical well-being. Finally, laughter and humor-based interventions produced positive results in many dimensions of well-being, especially psychological well-being.


In sum, this study provides evidence of the importance of humor in promoting well-being and highlights the potential benefits of cultivating positive humor styles, particularly self-enhancing humor. While the research team acknowledges the limited empirical evidence in the literature regarding the association between humor and physical well-being, they consider its positive nature sets a promising path for future research. Additionally, “These findings could have important implications for interventions aimed at improving well-being, particularly psychological well-being”, Raquel Oliveira concludes.

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