Page last updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Drinking, laughter and health
by Dr Geoff Lowe, Psychologist, University of Hull, England
Moderate drinkers live longer and have better health than non-drinkers and heavier drinkers. why? Some medical/biological scientists say this might be due to specific constituents of alcohol. this may well be so, but it is also likely that the psychosocial characteristics of moderate drinkers could be relevant. since laughter has been independently shown to have health benefits (as a stress buffer and immune system booster), it could also play a key role in the lifestyles of moderate drinkers.

How do laughter and drinking interact? What role does expectancy play? What is the effect of reactive laughter in different drinker groups? Laughter, of course, is only one of undoubtedly very many alternative factors which may be contributing to the possible'health benefits' of moderate drinking. Similarly, one might expect health status to be related to pleasure and guilt aspects of drinking.

Laboratory Experiments

We have recently been looking at some of the interactions amongst drinking, laghter, expectancy, pleasure, guilt and health. The basic design involved a drinking session immediately prior to watching a humorous video. Laughter responses were discreetly recorded by pairs of trained observers. Participants completed a health and lifestyle questionaire, and rated their drinking ( and other regular pleasures) in terms of enjoyment/pleasure and guilt (each on a 10-point scale).

In a balanced-placebo design, participants either expected alcohol ( and got either alcohol or placebo). Alcoholic drinks consisted of 2x360ml bottles of 8.2% alcoholic beverage (or two glasses of vodka and tonic/mixer, premixed according to 0.6g/kg body weight). Placebo drinks were 2x 360 ml bottles of 'alcohol free' beverage [<1%] or two glasses of water and tonic/mixer with a 10ml vodka float.

Key findings

There was evidence that drinking alcohol increased laughter, with expectancy playing a significant role. the balanced placebo design enabled us to measure expectancy effects separately from alcohol effects. Mean laughter scores were higher in the alcohol conditions, but were also higher when participants expected alcohol.

A point to note was that much of the variability in laughter was related to 'social contagion' (eg an individual with an infectious laugh or giggle would typically produce more laughter in the group session, irrespective of the experimental condition). Such contagioius laughing may be a significant factor (compared with alcohol or funny videos) in stimulating group laughter.

Pleasure/guilt ratings were positively, but not significantly) related to laughter scores. Participants with higher P/G (total pleasure ratings divided by total guilt ratings) ratios reported better subjective health, whereas those with higher guilt ratings reported more coughs and colds and more visits to the doctor.

Conclusions

Our studies have shown - not surprisingly - that drinkers of alcohol do laugh more than non-drinkers.These results did not prove that drinking causes laughter - drinking expectancies also influence behaviour. But they do help to get people thinking about the context of an individual's drinking behaviour and related lifestyle, rather than the use of alcohol as medicine ( which the medical/biological hypothesis implies). Moreover, how people assess their drinking and related enjoyments in terms of pleasure and guilt seems to influence health status. It is possible that pleasure can enhance health, but the pleasure rating must clearly outweigh the associated guilt levels.

In summary, increased laughter among drinkers is the result not only of the effects of the alcohol but also of the positive associations with alcohol consumption which leads to heightened anticipation and enjoyment.

Acknowledgements: Dr Lowe is grateful to ARISE (Associates for Research into the Science of Enjoyment) for their support of this project. Dr Geof Lowe is a psychologist at The University of Hull, UK.

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