A Smart Sense of Humor Helps People Survive Being Alive

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Photo: MPI/Getty Images

While there is indeed such a thing as pathological joking — an affliction that onsets shortly after entering fatherhood — there’s evidence that a great sense of humor isn’t just a way to annoy friends and woo potential mates, but it actually helps you live longer.

The latest data comes from a Psychosomatic Medicine study recently covered by Tori Rodriguez at Scientific American. Norwegian researchers tracked 53,556 Norwegian men and women in a single county over 15 years. They used a questionnaire to assess the subjects’ sense of humor along three domains: the cognitive (“Do you easily recognize a mark of humorous intent?”); the social (“Persons who are out to be funny are really irresponsible types not to be relied upon”); and the affective (“Do you consider yourself to be a mirthful person?”). While these might seem like trivial questions as far as length of life is concerned, the associations were pretty amazing: The cognitive looks quite protective, the other two much less so.

Women who had high cognitive-humor scores had a 48 percent lesser risk of death overall, Rodriguez reports, with 83 percent less likelihood of dying from infection and 73 percent less likelihood from heart disease. In men, those same high-humor smarts predicted a 74 percent reduced risk of dying from infection, but only that. The social and affective didn’t do much of anything.

Since this was an associative study, you can’t really get at why or how humor protects people. But other research suggests that a sense of humor helps maintain “stable positive affect,” meaning that joking about something is like emotional jujitsu: If you can flip whatever frustration you’re facing into something funny, you’re less likely to get stressed-out —which could lead to inflammation and other unsavory downstream effects. Remember that the next time your flight gets delayed.