2 people lying on ground and laughing

New study proves laughter is the best medicine

New study proves laughter is the best medicine

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

Given the world remains in the vice-like grip of this once-in-a-century pandemic, and the start of 2022 sees no end to the COVID-chaos, maintaining a sense of humour hasn’t been easy.

Research released recently in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, titled A systematic review of humour-based strategies for addressing public health priorities, has shown that as challenging as it may be at this time, laughter may indeed be the best medicine.

Appropriately, the study was authored by Elaine Miller, a women’s health physiotherapist and Scottish comedian, with a team of Monash University researchers, led by Professor Helen Skouteris. The team analysed 13 studies from the last decade where humour was used for health communication, to convey serious health messages, ‘covering topics such as mental health, breast and testicular cancer self-examination, safe sex, skin cancer and binge drinking,’ as reported by Monash University.

“I have seen comedy used to address the most taboo subjects on stage,’ Ms Miller said in the Monash University article. “My field is incontinence, which is often very embarrassing for people to talk about, but because laughter is universal it has the potential to reach people broadly.”

In the ANZJPH study, the researchers stated that, “Humour-based strategies were delivered through various mediums including written, print and online advertisements, video or entertainment narratives, public service announcements, and a comedy performance. They focused on optimising behavioural health intentions, by targeting individuals’ knowledge, attitudes and psychological outcomes such as self-efficacy and anxiety.”

“What we found is that humour can act as an effective vehicle for delivering messages people might find fear-inducing or threatening,” Ms Miller said.

“Humour, if used well, can be an emotional buffer that breaks down some of that fear so the underlying messages reach the intended audience and influence their behaviours and attitudes.”

The ANZJPH study noted that, “Participants who watched humorous ads exhibited prolonged attention, judged the ad as more convincing, and the message was better recognised compared to non-humorous ads, supporting the hypothesis that attention is attracted by humour.”

According to the study, several components of these humorous health promotion interventions were found to influence their effectiveness, including:

  • Audience characteristics, e.g. an issue’s personal relevance differs between individuals
  • The level of humour perceived
  • The level of fear/threat felt
  • Topics perceived as embarrassing or ‘taboo’

“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Ms Miller told Monash University.

“A poorly judged joke can ruin a health campaign’s message, a therapeutic relationship, a gig; or all three of those at once. Humour is very complex and further research to examine humour and public health promotion is certainly warranted.

“What this study also highlighted is, there’s a lot of us who work in health promotion who can learn from commercial advertising and public safety campaigns, such as road and rail safety where humour has been shown to attract attention, promote the memory of and positive attitudes towards an advertisement, brand or message.”

Monash University researcher, Professor Helen Skouteris, noted that this research was an “encouraging first step” for using humour in a more widespread manner in public health.

Rail Safety Humour

Metro Trains Melbourne is one organisation that previously used humour-based public health messaging in a campaign titled ‘Dumb Ways to Die‘, aimed at promoting rail safety.

Lyrics to the safety jingle include:

Eat medicine that’s out of date, use your private parts as piranha bait, dumb ways to die”

Stand on the edge of a train station platform, drive around the boom gates at a level crossing, run across the tracks between the platforms, they may not rhyme but they’re quite possibly, the dumbest ways to die”

“Humour is enjoyable. People are drawn to it – they want to look at it and be part of it,” Professor Skouteris said.

“Importantly, this review highlighted that humour can be utilised as a tool to encourage conversation and sharing. It’s not just a way to send a message but actually encourages people to talk about it and be open with others, which we believe can lead to influencing society’s perceptions and behaviours around important public health prevention messages.”

Future Investigations

Professor Skouteris noted that future research should specifically investigate the effect of humour-based health messaging in non-clinical environments, as previous research has primarily “focused on humour and health outcomes in clinical settings”, she told Monash University.

As you’d expect, this story does have a nice punchline.

Comedian & physiotherapist Elaine Miller, whose show ‘Gusset Gripers’ won the Comedy Award at Fringe World 2020, has already thought how to expand on this research in her comedy shows, saying, “I’m interested in sub-clinical women, those who have incontinence but who don’t seek help. I’m planning to tour my show and survey the audience to establish prevalence of pelvic health conditions and whether a comedy show can encourage help-seeking.”

Footnote:  The ANZJPH article, A systematic review of humour-based strategies for addressing public health priorities was jointly authored by Elaine Miller, Heidi J. Bergmeier, Claire Blewitt, Amanda O’Connor, Helen Skouteris


Image: tabitha turner/Unsplash

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