How Your Sense of Humor Impacts Your Longevity

If you want to live to 100, you should probably be in on the joke

A Greek bust with a clown nose.
"Affiliative humor" is the beneficial bit — mind aggressive, or self-defeating forms, which can actually have a detrimental impact.
Yifei Fang/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Bloomberg profiled Bryan Johnson, a 45-year-old software entrepreneur who spends $2 million on his body annually in an quest to restore “the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, tendons, teeth, skin, hair, bladder, penis and rectum of an 18-year-old.”

The man wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to take 24 supplements, eat baby food and electrostimulate his pelvis. He actually popped back in the news again this week: he’s now injecting his teenage son’s blood plasma into his body. Excellent stuff.

Johnson’s lifestyle is as expensive as it is outrageous — and it’s obviously pretty funny, too. But it’s interesting that someone so determined to live longer…is so far on the outside of the joke. After all, the most recent research indicates that laughter is a longevity powerhouse. Why bet the house on hyperbaric chambers, when you could just tell a few more jokes?

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Laughter and longevity

According to a 15-year follow-up of Norway’s Nord-Trøndelag Health Study, sense of humor is strongly connected to lower mortality rates. Humor decreases our risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. It enriches the brain, too — strikingly, the authors of the study described humor as a “health-protecting cognitive coping resource.”

The research indicates that a life lived in good humor can help adult men reduce their risk of death from infection by 74%. Ultimately, humor isn’t just something that makes life worth living; it also functions as a valuable tool, which can help us deal with the inevitabilities of aging in a healthier, more resilient way.

Good humor

A key distinction to remember, though — not all forms of humor are created equal.

There are two types you’ll want to prize over the others: affiliative humor, the most socially beneficial style, which is linked to positive interpersonal relationships and improved psychological well-being. And self-enhancing humor, the ability to maintain a humorous perspective in the face of adversity. For instance: on a tough travel day, you might take note (eavesdrop) on ludicrous interactions between others on your plane or train. It’s an effective coping mechanism, offering you a reprieve from your own stress.

The research indicates a robust connection between these positive humor styles and longevity. They reduce stress and boost the immune system, basically. On the other hand, aggressive humor, which is mainly used to belittle others, and self-defeating humor, a self-deprecating style used to gain approval, can have negative impacts on health and longevity.

If you’re inclined to get a read on the humor you most typically employ, try Dr. Rod Martin’s free Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ). Don’t feel discouraged if you land in the aggressive or self-defeating buckets.

Shooting the @$!&

It can just serve as a wake-up call for you to seek out affiliative humor, which is best characterized by shared laughter and bonding experiences. At a time when American adults are in a sort of loneliness freefall, it’s never been more important to remaster the art of the casual hang out (as Sheila Liming wrote about in her recent book). You know: “shooting the shit.”

When we gather — on the couch, at the bar, for a family function — we populate the aural lulls with bids. Many fall flat, some get a big laugh, all are worth trying. Affiliative humor fosters closeness, builds trust and helps diffuse tension. It is absolutely critical to emotional well-being and personal satisfaction…so it should come as little surprise that it has such a positive impact on the body as well. If the body can store pain, of course it can store joy, too.

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