The Healing Power of Humor

As a heart surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, I have to deliver a lot of bad news. Humor is a wonderful tool. It helps patients cope with what they’re facing, and it helps them get better too. There’s a lot of data showing that patients who are depressed after heart surgery have a higher mortality rate, and optimistic patients have significantly fewer wound infections. Laughter can cultivate that optimism, and it truly is the best medicine in many ways:

It defuses fear. People are scared of their bodies. Humor can crack through the ice and take the fear away. For example, I have to tell patients about the risk of cognitive impairment after surgery. They’re terrified, fearing the worst, so I tell them in a humorous way that it’s usually just like forgetting second grade. People understand what that means, and it doesn’t seem quite as scary.

It’s reassuring. After open-heart surgery a patient might say, “Doctor, my chest really hurts.” And I’ll say with a wink, “Oh, does it feel like someone opened you up, cut the bone and operated in there?” That tells them the pain is normal and they’re going to be fine.

It relaxes you. Medical procedures such as surgery are stressful. When you push any engine, including your body, to its maximum, every once in a while it slips a gear. The ways the body manifests that are irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure and increased sensitivity to pain. When people use humor, the autonomic nervous system just tones down a bit to take it off high gear, and that allows the heart to relax.

It helps doctors cope. If you’re giving people bad news every day, it becomes tough. For many doctors, our coping mechanism is to take the humanity out of it. Humor is a mutually beneficial coping mechanism. Plus, it’s a better way to enjoy life.

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