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Dublin: 15°C Thursday 18 August 2022

Opinion: Laughing our way to good male health – why we need humour in healing

Men take fewer preventive health measures and are less willing to seek medical help than women, but a little laughter goes a long way – even when getting a serious message across.

Finian Murray

THERE’S A CLASSIC joke which goes: ‘Men die, on average, five years younger than women do. Why? Because they want to’.

Statistics do show that men on the island of Ireland have higher death rates than women at all ages, and for all leading causes of death. Compared to women, men experience more accidents during sporting activities and in the workplace; are more likely to engage in risk behaviours such as speeding, drink driving and not wearing seatbelts; have less healthy diets, and are more likely to be overweight or obese. Men are also more likely to become involved with alcohol and substance misuse, and are more likely to experience mental health problems and to die by suicide.

Men tend to see health as ‘women’s business’. Consequently, they take few preventive health measures and are less willing to seek medical help. Even when you do manage to get men to attend a course about health, they tend to have their minds made up that they are not going to enjoy the experience.

Humour as a means to engage men

From my years of working in the area of promoting men’s health, I have found that one way of getting men to take heed of health messages is through the introduction of humour to the subject. This idea is not something new. Numerous studies in the field of advertising have noted that humour is the most effective tool for enhancing recall of advertisements. The advertising industry has long recognised the value of using humour to sell products. This knowledge is beginning to become recognised in education too.

Humour strengthens the relationship between student and teacher, reduces stress, makes a course more interesting, and, if relevant to the subject, may even enhance recall of the material. In the words of Virginia Trooper: ‘It’s not what’s taught, but what’s caught. And if we can get our students’ mouths open for laughter, we can slip in a little food for thought’.

Health benefits of humour

This begs the question: ‘Does humour have any health benefits?’ Scientists say that when you laugh your brain and body produce beta-endorphins – the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Your tears contain more immunoglobulin after laughter. This antibody is the first line of defence against viral and bacterial infections. When you laugh, your mouth also contains more immunoglobulin.

Laughter decreases stress hormones like cortisol. Blood pressure increases during laughter and drops below the resting level afterwards; there is reduced muscular tension after laughter; air is expelled from your lungs at really fast rates when you have a good chuckle; your body gets thoroughly oxygenated – which is good for thinking clearly and for aerobic fitness.

However, it is not a panacea for all ills – as the American humorist, Jack Handey, warns: ‘Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis’.

Theories of humour

You have to be mindful that there are, basically, three different theories of humour – the Superiority Theory, the Incongruity Theory and the Release Theory. The Superiority Theory argues that jokes work by being aggressive towards a third party. The Incongruity Theory argues that humour involves some kind of a mismatch of ideas or confusion about the meaning of words. The Release Theory (first put forward by Sigmund Freud) believes that jokes exist to allow the harmless release of anti-social emotions or taboos.

I have found that incongruous humour is the safest humour to use, because it is the least offensive. An example of this type of humour is my favourite quote from Steven Wright: ‘I’m addicted to placebos. I could quit, but it wouldn’t make any difference’.

How does this work in practice?

Taking the lead from the advertising industry, and from men’s health expert Dr Ian Banks, I started to include humour in my presentations and courses. I quickly found that when the men were laughing, they were paying attention and picking up the health messages. In the evaluations at the end of training courses, ‘humour’ is frequently quoted as the number one answer to the question ‘what did you find most useful about the training?’

Health messages don’t have to be boring. Instead of telling people to eat less, I sometimes use the slogan, ‘little pickers wear bigger knickers’. Alternatively, to encourage young men to perform a testicular self-examination I often use the strap line: ‘Keep your eye on the ball’.

Psychologists tell us that children laugh, on average, 400 times a day, whereas adults only laugh 15 times. Those 385 laughs… I say, let’s reclaim them!

Finian Murray is a member of the Men’s Health Forum in Ireland (MHFI). Check out more about Men’s Health Week 2014 here

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About the author:

Finian Murray

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