Summary: Does a Sense of Humour Impact on Pain Tolerance Levels

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A sense of humour has been said to benefit physical health in several ways which is important nowadays as humour could be an option for future pain therapy as opposed to using painkillers. Humour effects pain tolerance and looking at the ways in which this has been proven by two different studies on both children and adults and using other studies that support and question their results.

R.I.M Dunbar et al.,found that laughter allows us to feel uplifted along with having a strong effect on pain tolerance; they found this by conducting six experiments that measured pain tolerance using a frozen wine vacuum cooler sleeve. The first three experiments analysed the effects of comedy against neutral videos using a control group. Experiment 4 tested for any group effects and experiment 5 tested if the effect was due to endorphins released by laughter or the effect of laughter by showing random participants a video with a positive effect without the comedy element. Experiment 6 tested if the results could be generalised to the real world; comedy and drama performances at a festival were analysed and participants completed a pain test by performing a physical exercise before and after the performances.

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The results of the first three experiments suggested that laughing at the comedy video increased the amount of time that the participants could keep their hand inside the wine cooler sleeve before they had to remove it; however after finding this, the experimenters continued to run experiments 4, 5 and 6 in order to eliminate various confounding variables. The results for experiment 4 showed no significant difference between the pain tolerance when the participants watched the videos in groups or alone meaning that experiments 1,2 and 3 should produce the same results if repeated with individuals as opposed to groups.The results of experiment 5 showed that the increased pain tolerance is due to natural laughter not ‘positive affect’ which, looking forward to prospective real world applications, may reduce the chance for any future pain therapy that may attempt to use a positive effect to alter pain tolerance.

Finally, the results for experiment 6 showed that participants watching comedy experienced an increase in pain tolerance after performances compared to participants watching drama performances showing that the results from the laboratory experiments can be applied to real-world situations though it can be questioned why an increased pain tolerance would be necessary in a situation similar to this one; if humour is being investigated to one day become a form of therapy then it could be argued perhaps that tests should be being carried on out those already experiencing pain rather than those whom are not in pain.

The results of experiments 1,2 and 3 can be explained by the release of endorphins, although experiment 5 found no link between a feeling of positivity and pain tolerance, the endorphins released by laughter begin to cause a change in pain tolerance when in groups or alone which can be shown through the idea of Duchenne laughter which Dunbar found to be natural, unforced laughter that causes the release of endorphins. Non-Duchenne laughter is the opposite- laughter that is sometimes forced due to being part of a group- R. I. M. Dunbar  proved that this wasn’t present in their study by conducting experiment 4 and finding no significant difference between results from participants in groups and participants who were alone. This effect of a higher pain tolerance correlating with humour is important for future humour therapy to allow for reduced pain symptoms in patients with a lower pain tolerance instead of continuous use of drugs like painkillers. However, this would require much more research to back up the effectiveness of the therapy before it is introduced to the wider population.

Another study was conducted to determine the correlation between humour levels and pain tolerance in children; found that whilst watching humorous videos, children’s pain tolerance increased and if this pilot study were to be repeated as a full scale study, the results could be applied to real-world situations and allow children in stressful or painful situations to be helped. The pain tolerance in this study is measured by the amount of time the participant can keep their hand in cold water and pain intensity was measured on a scale from 0-10 which the child would use to rate how painful the task was.There were three trials in this study by Stuber and they all had a within-subject design. During the first trial participants immersed their hand in the cold water without watching any video and then rated the pain intensity on the scale. The second trial had the participants watch different clips of humorous videos and then, after watching the clips, immerse their hand again and rate the pain intensity on the scale. The third trial had the participants choose their favourite video clip and watch it again whilst their hand was submerged in the water and then were asked to rate the pain intensity for a final time.

This study is one of the few published papers that focuses on the effect of humour on children’s pain tolerances only as opposed to the effect on adults. Stuber focused on the effect it has on pain tolerance in children, this is helpful as it opens up the prospect of therapy instead of different painkillers for children to reduce their chances of becoming dependant on any kinds of drugs that may ordinarily be prescribed for pain symptoms. The study found that pain tolerance was increased due to the video being a distraction as opposed to the humour altering pain tolerance due to any kind of endorphins in children.Zweyer, K; Velker, B; Ruch, Willibald conducted another similar study to the aforementioned two with adult participants however they focused on how long the increased pain tolerance lasts after the participants watch the videos. They found that the increase in pain tolerance lasts 20 minutes post viewing of the video which contradicts the findings of Stuber et al., (2007) who found that pain tolerance was only increased whilst viewing the video and then ceased when the viewing stopped. It could be that this effect is due to the participants in the Stuber et al., (2007) study being children and those in the Zweyer study being adults however this needs to be looked into before any conclusions are drawn on this theory.

Some of the studies on humour’s effect on pain tolerance are somewhat contradictory, however, the overall outcome is that a higher sense of humour causes a higher pain tolerance in adults and children alike. The point that needs clarification in the form of future studies is: does the change in pain tolerance last post humour or does it decrease instantly after the humour has ceased? Once this is determined, humour can begin to be introduced as a form of therapy which could go on to save money in the health sector due to a lowered number of prescriptions being given for pain related drugs.  

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