Survival of the Witty-est

Steven Sultanoff

The physical immune system is one of the body’s most important defenses against environmental pollutants. That’s why we sleep, exercise, and take Echinacea. But what about our psychological immune system? How can we strengthen it to protect us from the emotional and psychological stressors we experience in our professional and personal lives on a day-to-day basis?

Well, maybe Dick Van Dyke was on to something when he and “Uncle Albert” laughed their way to the ceiling in that classic scene in Mary Poppins. For humor not only relieves stress immediately, it also generates psychological antibodies to fortify our systems and develop resilience.

Biochemically, humor has been shown to increase immunoglobulin A, increase natural killer T cells, and decrease stress hormones. It has also been shown to increase our tolerance to pain. Cognitively, humor helps provide perspective and break negative thinking, enhancing our ability to perceive the world more realistically. As Shakespeare stated, “Nothing is good or bad. It is thinking that makes it so.”

Emotionally, humor relieves distress because the two feelings are mutually exclusive. It is impossible for anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, or resentment to occupy the same psychological space as humor. Behaviorally, humor can energize and recharge us, increasing our ability to choose activity over inactivity. We are more likely to greet and connect with others when we experience humor.

Thus, to develop our psychological immune system, we need to train ourselves to see with “comic vision”—a way of perceiving the world that allows us to be receptive to the humor within and around us. So the next time something seemingly terrible happens, try to find the hilarity in the situation. You will be much better equipped to handle the moment after having a good laugh. It has always been, and will always be, the best medicine.

Dr. Steven Sultanoff has been adjunct professor of psychology for 24 years, past president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, and self-described “mirthologist.” Visit his website at

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