Charge Up for Good Health

Do Funny People Live Longer?

A healthy sense of humor might just keep you healthy as you get older.

The Guinness Book of World Records gave Phyllis Diller the nod for most laughs per minute (12) -- twice as many as funnyman Bob Hope, her hero. It might have been Diller’s machinegun delivery of one-liners like these that gave her the edge:

  • “I once wore a peek-a-boo blouse. People would peek, and then they’d boo.”
  • “They say that housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?”
  • “Photos of me don't do me justice. They just look like me.”
  • “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’”
  • “My cooking is so bad that my kids thought Thanksgiving was in memory of Pearl Harbor.”

And the withering string of self-deprecating jibes was always followed by her signature cackle -- which made her sound like a demonic crow. She delivered the rapid-fire lines wearing a spangled minidress with hair that looked like it had been styled with a hand mixer. Listen to that laugh here.

Diller, who died on August 20 at the age of 95 (“with a smile on her face,” according to her son), set another record too: Along with her mentor, Bob Hope, and other professional funny people, she lived longer than most people do.

At a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, former sitcom writer turned university professor Steven Pritzker reported that professional comedians live longer that other entertainers as well as people in other professions.

Pritzker, who is the director of Saybrook University’s masters of psychology with an emphasis on creativity program, looked at 73 famous comics who’d gone to the big open mic night in the sky -- their median age at death was 74. Of the top 26 comics in the group, median age at death was 77, higher than any other profession. (There were even a couple of centenarians in there such as Bob Hope and George Burns.) Architects came in second at just under 76.

Why Laughter = Longevity
Pritzker, who was once a professional funny man himself (he wrote for the Emmy-winning “Mary Tyler Moore Show”), says he doesn’t know for sure why a sense of humor translates into longevity. But he has a hypothesis: “It could allow an individual to handle stress and aging by being a tension breaker.”

His theory is in line with many studies that have linked laughter and having a sense of humor with better physical health. It’s not a stretch -- research suggests that humor and laughter do reduce the physical effects of stress, including a depressed immune system. (One recent Romanian study even found that people who had a sense of humor also took better care of their teeth -- flossing and using mouthwash every day -- than people who were more dour.)

How to Hone Your Sense of Humor
So, how do you develop a sense of humor if you weren’t born with one? The same way to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. Read and listen to funny stuff; occasionally skip from the business page to the comics for some relief. Sign up for an email joke a day. Share them.

“I believe it is possible in some cases [to develop a sense of humor], because having been a comedy writer and writing teacher, I saw some people actually become funnier as they picked up the rhythms of the humor,” says Pritzker. “We find that humor does provide an advantage for aging and quality of life; the next research question will be to see if we can actually train people to develop a sharper sense of humor.”

Humor class? I can see it now -- the only classroom where getting an A isn’t as important as becoming class clown.

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