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Did You Hear the One About Humor and Longevity?

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I recently read an article about a study in Norway that found people who had a sense of humor lived longer.  Any truth to this?  And is poking fun at aging really funny?  

Answer: Yes, Norwegian researchers report that adults who have a sense of humor outlive those who do not find life funny.  The study was based on 53,000 Norwegians over a seven-year period.

Participants were asked how easily they found humor in real-life situations and how important humor was to them.  Test questions were designed to cover only friendly humor, not humor that creates conflict, is insulting or a variation of bullying.

The study revealed that the greater role humor played in participants’ lives, the greater the chances of their surviving at least until age 70.  Adults who scored in the top 25 percent for humor appreciation were 35 percent more likely to be alive at 70 than those in the bottom quarter.

One objection to the study was the possibility that those who had the best sense of humor were the healthiest.  That proved to be untrue.  Also, increased life expectancy could not be shown after age 75.  At that age, genetics and biological aging are more influential, researchers noted.

Project leader Professor Sven Svebak was quoted in Science Daily as saying, “Humor is not just laughter.” Rather,  he said, it is a way of thinking and often occurs in dialogue with others.  “It does not need to be externalized,” he said.

Humor is reported to be therapeutic,  Norman Cousins, noted author, editor, and promoter of holistic healing, found that laughing at old comedy movies helped cure him of a degenerative spinal condition.  He documented his experience in the book “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” (Bantam 1979).

Now, let’s talk about your second question:  Are jokes about aging funny?  It depends on whom you ask. There is a fine line between humor about aging that is funny and humor that promotes negative stereotypes.

Erdman B. Palmore,  professor emeritus of sociology at Duke University, studied attitudes towards aging through humor.  He analyzed more than 250 jokes about aging and classified them according to positive or negative views about older people.  He found that more than half of the jokes reflected negative views about aging; about 25 percent were positive.

Why the negative approach?   Palmore suggests that denial is the basis of much of the humor. One of the most famous such humorists was Jack Benny,  who asserted he was 39…for decades.
Palmore found that denying we are old may have little to do with our chronological age. Rather, it is a denial of the commonly accepted stereotypes of aging.

Although somewhat funny, humor that is created and enjoyed by older adults often focuses on negative aspects of aging.  Here is an example from the “senior personals” posting in Florida and Arizona newspapers, according to an article written for the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

On long-term commitment: “Recent widow who has just buried fourth husband looking for someone to round out a six-unit plot.”

From Foxy Lady: “Sexy fashion-conscious, blue-haired beauty, 80s, slim, 5’4” (used to be 5’6”) searching for sharp-looking, sharp-dressing companion.  Matching white shoes and belt a plus.”

Although we need to be aware of negative stereotypes, we also cannot take ourselves too seriously.  Here are a few age-related one-liners to encourage a smile or laugh for the day:

  • “Inside every 70-year old is a 35-year-old asking, “What happened?”   Ann Landers
  • “Retirement must be wonderful.  I mean, you can suck in your stomach for only so long.”   Burt Reynolds
  • “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”    Lucille Ball
  • Reporters interviewing a 104-year-old woman:  “And what do you think is the best thing about being 104?  “No peer pressure,” she replied.

Thank your good question.  Let’s bring a little humor into our families, workplaces and volunteer activities.  It makes us feel good and who knows, it may add some good years to our lives.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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