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Sense of humor, physical health, and wellbeing at work: A three-year longitudinal study of Finnish police officers


Abstract The purpose of this study was to provide a longitudinal prospective test of the hypothesis that a greater sense of humor would predict better physical health and workplace well-being over a three-year period, using a variety of physiological and other indicators of health. Data were obtained from 34 Finnish police chiefs in both 1995 and 1998, including self-report and peer ratings of sense of humor; measures of blood pressure, cholesterol levels, alcohol consumption, body mass index, and smoking; and self-report measures of work capacity, burnout, stress, and workplace satisfaction. Primary analyses provided no evidence in support of the humor-health hypothesis, as sense of humor scores obtained in 1995 failed to predict any of the 1998 levels of physical health and workplace well-being. Further analyses, including data on an additional sample of 53 Finnish police constables, revealed some associations that were contrary to the humor-health hypothesis (e.g., higher scores on some aspects of sense of humor were associated with greater body mass, increased smoking, and greater risk of cardiovascular disease). These ndings are discussed in terms of the continued popularity of the humor-health hypothesis, despite the lack of substantial empirical support, and the need for more sophisticated conceptualizations of humor in future research. Keywords: Sense of humor; physical health; work; police ocers. Introduction If humor and laughter have benecial eects on physical health, as is commonly believed, one would expect that individuals with a greater
Humor 171/2 (2004), 2135 09331719/04/00170021 6 Walter de Gruyter


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sense of humor would show evidence of better health over time. However, in a recent comprehensive review of the research on humor and physical health, Martin (2001) concluded that there is little consistent evidence of correlations between self-report measures of sense of humor and various indicators of health status. Although some studies have found the expected negative correlations between humor test scores and self-reported illness symptoms (e.g., Carroll and Shmidt 1992; Ruch et al. 1996; Simon 1990), other studies, often with larger sample sizes, have failed to replicate these ndings (e.g., Anderson and Arnoult 1989; Labott and Martin 1990; Portereld 1987). Similar inconsistencies have been found in research on sense of humor and secretory immunoglobulin-A (S-IgA: a component of the immune system), with some small studies nding signicant positive correlations (e.g., Dillon and Totten 1989) and other larger studies failing to nd any correlation (e.g., Lefcourt et al. 1990; Martin and Dobbin 1988; McClelland and Cheri 1997). A limitation of much of the existing research on sense of humor and health is that the studies have tended to focus on only one or two healthrelated variables. Indeed, most studies have relied exclusively on selfreport measures of illness symptoms rather than more objective physiological indicators of health. Although, as noted above, some studies have examined a single component of immunity (S-IgA), none of the previous studies have employed a broader range of physiological measures to examine various health risks, such as those relating to risk for cardiovascular disease (e.g., blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body mass index). Besides limited study of physiological measures of health status, past studies also have not examined the relationship between sense of humor and potential health-related habits, such as smoking, overeating, and alcohol consumption. Past research has been based on the assumption that humor benets health through such mechanisms as improved coping with stress or potential salutary physiological eects of frequent laughter. However, an alternative hypothesis that warrants investigation is that sense of humor may have indirect eects on physical health by inuencing health-related lifestyle activities. For example, individuals with a greater sense of humor, perhaps due to a more cheerful and optimistic outlook, may engage in more healthy lifestyle activities, such as obtaining regular exercise and refraining from smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. On the other hand, it is also possible that the optimism and cheerfulness of high-humor individuals cause them to ignore potential health risks and consequently to engage in fewer healthy lifestyle habits and behaviors. It

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is also possible, of course, that there is no relationship between sense of humor and health-related behaviors. A further limitation of the existing studies is that researchers have generally only made use of cross-sectional designs, assessing sense of humor and health-related variables at the same point in time. An exception to this is a study by Martin and Dobbin (1988), which found a stressbuering eect of sense of humor on levels of S-IgA assessed at threemonth follow-up. McClelland and Cheri (1997) also examined the relationship between sense of humor scores and subsequent frequency and severity of colds over a three-month period, although no correlation was found. However, it may be benecial to examine possible longer-term relationships between humor and health outcomes using a prospective, longitudinal design over several years, controlling for initial levels of physical health variables. Such a design would allow for examination of the ways in which sense of humor may relate to changes in overall health status over a longer period of time. The present study, which investigated relationships between humor and health in a sample of Finnish police ocers, was designed to address several of these limitations of past research. First, this study included a variety of physiological measures pertaining to cardiovascular risk that have not been examined together in previous humor research (i.e., blood pressure, serum cholesterol, and body mass index). Second, the study also examined possible relationships between sense of humor and lifestyle behaviors that may be associated with increased illness risk (i.e., alcohol consumption and smoking). Third, this study made use of a prospective longitudinal design across a three-year period to predict physical health and health-related behaviors, after taking into account initial levels of health at time 1. Finally, in addition to these variables relating to physical health, the present study also addressed the purported link between sense of humor and enhanced well-being in the workplace. This was done by also including a variety of measures relating to workplace satisfaction, stress levels, burnout, and work capacity. The measure of sense of humor used in the present study was the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale (MSHS: Thorson and Powell 1993), which has been used in previous research on humor and psychological health (e.g., Thorson et al. 1997). Our primary analysis provided a test of the humor-health hypothesis by using sense of humor scores obtained in 1995 to predict physical health and well-being levels in 1998, after taking into account 1995 levels of health and well-being. This is a stringent longitudinal test of the hypoth-


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esis that humor facilitates physical health and workplace well-being. Evidence in support of this hypothesis would show signicant partial correlations between sense of humor scores and physical health and well-being measures. As one example, the humor-health hypothesis would predict that higher humor scores at time 1 would be associated with lower scores on the measures pertaining to cardiovascular risk at time 2, after controlling for risk levels at time 1. On the other hand, sense of humor may actually show the opposite relationships with various health measures (e.g., higher humor is related to higher levels of smoking, higher blood pressure, etc.). This pattern would suggest that the cheerfulness and optimism associated with greater levels of humor may result in less concern about engaging in behaviors and habits that increase health risk. Finally, it remains possible that the humor-health hypothesis would not be supported. In particular, it may be that sense of humor is unrelated to any of the physical health, lifestyle, and well-being measures.

Method Participants The initial 1995 sample consisted of a total of 45 male police chiefs from various cities, towns, and rural districts in Eastern Finland. By 1998 three of these police chiefs had been lost from the study due to attrition (1 death, 1 retirement, 1 failed to respond); and a further eight were no longer police chiefs, following a major reorganization of the judicial and police systems in Finland. Accordingly, the nal longitudinal sample consisted of 34 police chiefs for whom sense of humor, physical health, and workplace well-being measures were available in both 1995 and 1998. The mean age of this nal sample (in 1998) was 49.8 years, with a standard deviation of 6.3 years, and a range from 38 to 61 years.

Sense of humor measures Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale (MSHS). The MSHS (Thorson and Powell 1993) is a 24item self-report scale measuring several aspects of sense of humor, including the generation of humor, use of humor in coping with stress, tendency to amuse others, and positive attitudes to-

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ward humor. Past research indicates good reliability for the total score on the MSHS, as well as several of the component scores (Kirsh and Kuiper 2003; Thorson et al. 1997). A Finnish translation of the MSHS that had been psychometrically tested and validated on a prior research sample by the principal investigator (P.K.) was employed in the present research. Psychometric work on this Finnish version revealed three reliable factors, namely, humor generation relating to dicult situations (e.g., I can ease a tense situation by saying something funny), the ability to amuse others (e.g., People look to me to say amusing things), and the use of humor to cope (e.g., Humor helps me cope). The coecient alpha reliabilities for total MSHS scores in the present sample were quite high in both 1995 (.81) and 1998 (.82), with the separate factor scores also showing acceptable levels of reliability (coecients ranged from .62 to .87, with a mean alpha of .73). Test-retest reliability across the three-year period of this study revealed a high degree of stability for the total MSHS score r :68, humor generation score r :75, and amusing humor score r :66. The coping humor score, however, showed less consistency across this same time period r :38. Total MSHS scores were also not signicantly related to age r :26 or education level r :09 in our sample. Peer ratings of sense of humor. Peer ratings of each participants sense of humor were obtained in both 1995 and 1998 by having colleagues rate each police chief on sense of humor, using the common and standard Finnish grading system (a 7point scale, with 4 being very poor and 10 being excellent). The test-retest reliability for this measure over the three years was .78.

Physical health measures Cardiovascular Risk Index (CRI). For each participant this index consisted of the sum of standardized scores on several physiological/biochemical measures pertaining to blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) and blood serum cholesterol levels, as well as self-reports of alcohol consumption per week (obtained via a health habits questionnaire). In our sample this overall index score showed good temporal stability over the three years of the study (test-retest r :62). The separate components of the index also showed acceptable test-retest reliabilities for this same time


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period (systolic BP r :59; diastolic BP r :55; alcohol consumption r :60; and cholesterol r :84). Body Mass Index (BMI). Weight and height measures collected at medical examinations were used to calculate a body mass index for each participant. This was computed by taking the weight in kilograms divided by the height in meters squared. Across three years, the scores on this body mass index remained quite stable, with a test-retest reliability of .83. Smoking Levels. The health habits questionnaire also asked each participant to report on his or her level of smoking behavior, with these levels being quite consistent over the three years (test-retest r :79).

Workplace well-being measures The Workplace Well-Being Index (WPWBI) was composed of four different standard Finnish-language questionnaires assessing workplace satisfaction, stress, and work capacity. These self-report measures were the Bergen Burnout Indicator, the Work Satisfaction Inventory, the Work Capacity Scale, and the Stress Symptoms Form. Prior research studies, reported in Finnish sources, indicate appropriate psychometric properties for all four measures. Internal consistency in our sample was high (e.g., Bergen Burnout Indicator Cronbach alpha of .92; Work Stress alpha of .79). Across three years, the overall index score (computed by summing standardized scores from the four measures) showed good stability (testretest r :64), with the individual components also showing acceptable test-retest reliabilities (r s ranged from .51 to .66, mean r :61).

Procedure Scores on all measures were collected twice for each participant, once in 1995 and once again three years later, in 1998. Nurses at the medical health organization responsible for serving all police forces in Finland collected health data on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and body mass (height and weight). The rst author (P.K.) met with each police chief twice (in 1995 and again in 1998) to administer the Sense of Humor measures (MSHS, peer ratings), a health habits questionnaire (smoking

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and alcohol consumption), and the workplace well-being measures (regarding burnout, satisfaction, stress, and work capacity). Results Primary test of the humor-health hypothesis Our primary analysis focused on the extent to which the self-report sense of humor scores obtained in 1995 were predictive of physical health and workplace well-being levels in 1998, after taking into account initial 1995 levels of health and well-being. The partial correlations pertaining to this analysis are shown in Table 1. Inspection of this table indicates a complete lack of support for the hypothesis that higher levels of sense of humor would relate to increased physical health and workplace well-being, as all sixteen partial correlations in Table 1 were non-signicant. Thus, higher scores on any of the sense of humor dimensions in 1995 did not predict lower risk for cardiovascular disease, lower body mass index, reduced smoking, or enhanced well-being at work in 1998. Further tests of the humor-health hypothesis Given that our primary analysis showed a lack of support for the hypothesis that sense of humor would predict enhanced physical health and
Table 1. Partial correlations between 1995 sense of humor scores and 1998 physical health and well-being (after accounting for 1995 physical health and well-being levels) Sense of Humor Measure (MSHS) Total Score Cardiovascular Risk Index Body Mass Index Daily Smoking Workplace Well-Being Index .01 .07 .14 .11 Generation of Humor .01 .13 .22 .06 Amusing Humor .24 .07 .06 .09 Coping Humor .11 .21 .01 .14

Physical Health and Well-Being Measures

N 34, All partial correlations reported in this table are non-signicant. MSHS Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale (Finnish version) Cardiovascular Risk Index Systolic and Dystolic Blood Pressure, Cholesterol Level, and Alcohol Consumption per week Body Mass Index Ratio of Weight (kg) to Height (m 2 ) Workplace Well-being Index Work Satisfaction, Bergen Burnout Indicator, Work Capacity, and Workplace Stress Symptom


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workplace well-being over time, we conducted a number of supplementary analyses to further test this hypothesis in several dierent ways. To begin, we calculated the simple correlations between sense of humor measures in 1995 and the physical health and workplace well-being measures in 1998 but without rst partialling out 1995 levels of health and well-being. These analyses revealed that 15 of the 16 simple correlations were still non-signicant, with a range of rs from .16 to .25 and an absolute mean r of .14. Interestingly, the sole signicant correlation in this analysis suggested that those with greater humor may exhibit poorer health-related habits, as higher levels of MSHS coping humor in 1995 were associated with a higher level of daily smoking in 1998 (r :34, p < :05). This positive relationship between humor and smoking may be due to the more extraverted personality traits of those with higher humor scores (Ruch 1994), since previous research has found that more extraverted individuals are more likely to smoke (Patton et al. 1993). We next considered the simple correlations between sense of humor and health and well-being for the initial 1995 time period only. Consistent with the analyses reported above, 14 of the 16 correlations were again non-signicant, with a range of rs from .16 to .22, and an absolute mean r of .12. Again, the only two signicant correlations were in a direction opposite to the humor-health hypothesis, as they involved greater levels of smoking being associated with both higher coping humor (r = .45, p < :01) and higher total MSHS humor scores (r :35, p < :05). Following this analysis, we then looked at only the data from the 1998 time period. Here, the vast majority of the correlations (13 out of 16) were again non-signicant, with a range of rs from .03 to .31 and an absolute mean r of .13. Of note, the three signicant correlations in 1998 were again all in a direction opposite to the humor-health hypothesis, with higher risk for cardiovascular disease associated with both higher levels of coping humor (r :37, p < :05) and amusing humor (r :35, p < :05). In addition, higher levels of amusing humor in 1998 were also linked to increased body mass for that same year (r :44, p < :01). All the preceding analyses, including our primary analysis, relied on self-reports of sense of humor (as measured via the MSHS). This measure is a reasonably reliable and valid indicator of sense of humor, with considerable temporal stability in our sample. It still remained possible, however, that other methods of assessing sense of humor, such as peer ratings, may show dierent patterns with the physical health and workplace well-being measures. Therefore, in order to test this possibility, we

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replicated all of the analyses reported above, but using the peer ratings of sense of humor instead of self-report MSHS scores. No signicant relationships were found between the peer ratings of sense of humor and the physical health and well-being measures for our primary analysis (range of rs from .08 to -.19, mean absolute r of.13); nor for any of the supplementary analyses reported above (range of rs from .03 to .22, mean absolute r of .15). It also remained possible that the two composite index scores that we employed in our analyses may have obscured possible signicant associations between sense of humor scores and the individual components of each index. For example, our cardiovascular risk index consisted of the sum of several components, namely, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels, and weekly alcohol consumption. To investigate this possibility, we also calculated separate correlations between sense of humor scores and the individual components of each index. This analysis revealed that both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were unrelated to sense of humor scores (MSHS and peer ratings), either for the 1995 data alone, the 1998 data alone, or using 1995 humor scores to predict 1998 blood pressure levels (across these various analyses the mean absolute correlations were .08 for systolic and .11 for diastolic). Furthermore, a more detailed examination of the 1998 data revealed that sense of humor (MSHS) scores were unrelated to weekly alcohol consumption (r :20), cholesterol levels (mean absolute r of .15), and days o because of illness (r :11). This 1998 analysis also indicated that sense of humor (MSHS) was unrelated to the individual components of the workplace well-being index, such as work satisfaction, work stress symptoms, and work capacity (rs ranged from .02 to .12).

Additional sample Finally, it remained possible that the general lack of support for the humor-health hypothesis, as demonstrated in all of the above analyses, may have been specic only to our primary sample of 34 police chiefs. To explore this possibility further, an additional sample of 53 male Finnish police constables were recruited in 1998 and tested on several of the same sense of humor, physical health, and well-being measures. These further analyses also failed to reveal general support for the hypothesis that a greater sense of humor would be associated with better physical health


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and workplace well-being. In particular, MSHS scores in this additional sample were also unrelated to work satisfaction (r :06), work stress symptoms (r :15), work capacity (r :03), diastolic blood pressure (r :06), cholesterol level (r :16), body mass index (r :07), smoking (r :09), and days o because of illness (r :19). Furthermore, arguing against the humor-health hypothesis, higher levels of humor were signicantly associated with higher alcohol consumption (r :26, p :05) in this group. Finally, only one signicant correlation in this additional sample supported the humor-health hypothesis, with higher sense of humor scores linked to lower levels of systolic blood pressure (r :27, p < :05).

Discussion When considered together, the various analyses conducted on the two groups of participants examined in this study failed to provide support for the hypothesis that a greater sense of humor is related to better physical health. In fact, our primary longitudinal analysis showed a complete absence of any signicant relationships between sense of humor scores in 1995 and physical health and well-being three years later, after taking into account initial levels of health and well-being at time 1. Thus, this study does not provide any evidence that sense of humor, as measured by the MSHS and by peer ratings of humor, is related to changes in physical health over a period of three years. Our additional analyses on the main sample of police chiefs also failed to support the humor-health hypothesis, with the vast majority of the reported relationships being nonsignicant. The few correlations that were signicant actually showed ndings opposite to those predicted by the humor-health hypothesis, with higher humor being related to more smoking, higher body mass index, and higher overall risk for cardiovascular disease. Similarly, our cross-sectional analyses with the additional sample of police ocers were also generally unsupportive of the humorhealth hypothesis, with the majority of relationships being nonsignicant. Of the two signicant correlations, one was supportive of the humorhealth hypothesis (higher humor related to lower systolic blood pressure), and one was in the opposite direction (higher humor related to higher alcohol consumption).

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A potential criticism of this study might be that the small sample size for our primary analyses limited the power of the analyses to detect meaningful relationships. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of the non-signicant correlations were well below the values needed to reach signicance, with most falling below r :20. Furthermore, our additional analyses with a larger sample of police constables replicated the lack of signicant correlations. Thus, the lack of signicant ndings does not appear to have been simply due to limitations of power. In addition, the sizable test-retest reliabilities of nearly all measures indicate that the nonsignicant ndings were not merely due to unreliable data. The positive associations found between some sense of humor scores and several health risk factors, such as increased smoking and alcohol consumption, are particularly noteworthy. Although these ndings need to be interpreted with caution since they were not consistently found in all analyses, they do provide some initial evidence that sense of humor may be associated with lifestyle behaviors that confer increased rather than reduced health risks. Some of these associations may be due to the more extraverted personality traits of high-humor individuals (Ruch 1994). In this regard, past research has shown that extraverted individuals, as compared to introverts, are more likely to drink alcohol (Cook et al. 1998), more likely to smoke (Patton et al. 1993), less likely to quit smoking (Helgason et al. 1995), and more likely to be obese (Haellstroem and Noppa 1981). These ndings are also consistent with the results of a large longitudinal study reported by Friedman and associates (1993), which found a greater lifetime mortality risk in individuals who were rated as being more cheerful (higher sense of humor and optimism) in childhood. These authors suggested that more cheerful individuals may underestimate the risk of potentially health-impairing behaviors and may therefore be more careless about their health. Indeed, consistent with some of the results of the present study, a re-analysis of the Friedman et al. data also found higher levels of smoking among more cheerful individuals (Martin et al. 2002). Although further investigation is certainly necessary to replicate these particular ndings of the present study and to explore potential mediating mechanisms, these results do provide some preliminary evidence that a sense of humor may be associated with at least some types of risky health-related behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, and alcohol consumption.


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More generally, however, the present results add further weight to the pervasive lack of support for the hypothesized positive relationships between sense of humor measures and physical health variables, as demonstrated in much of the previous research (see Martin 2001 for an extensive review). Using a broader range of physiological measures of physical health risk, as well as measures of health-related lifestyle habits and behaviors, and a longitudinal prospective design, this study failed to nd any evidence for a positive relationship between sense of humor and either physical health or work-related well-being. Thus, it would appear that it may be overly simplistic to assume that there is a direct positive relationship between greater sense of humor, broadly dened, and better physical health. Does this failure to nd positive associations mean that we should abandon the time-honored and popular hypothesis that humor is benecial to physical health? We would say no and argue instead that further research in this area is still warranted but that researchers need to employ more sophisticated conceptualizations of humor and to explore more carefully various potential mechanisms by which humor may inuence health. With regard to conceptualizations of humor, most of the research to date has been based on the assumption that all forms of humor and laughter are benecial to physical and mental health. However, some researchers have recently pointed out that some types of humor (e.g., aliative or mildly self-deprecating humor) may be benecial to physical and psychological health, whereas other forms of humor (e.g., sarcastic or defensive-avoidant humor) may actually be detrimental to well-being (Kirsh and Kuiper 2003; Martin et al. 2003). In this regard, Martin et al. (2003) have recently developed a new measure of humor, the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ). The HSQ is based on a four-factor conceptualization of everyday humor use in which two humor factors are hypothesized to be benecial to well-being (namely, aliative and selfenhancing humor), whereas two factors are thought to be potentially detrimental (namely, aggressive and self-defeating humor). Research to date with the HSQ, although focusing primarily on psychological rather than physical health variables, has provided considerable evidence of differential correlates with well-being and dysfunction for dierent styles of humor (see also Kuiper et al., this issue, for a detailed presentation). The MSHS, which was used in the present study, has been found to correlate positively with all four HSQ scales, suggesting that it may not distinguish between potentially benecial and detrimental forms of humor. Thus, the

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failure to distinguish between positive and negative forms of humor may account, in part, for the generally negative ndings of past research examining the relationship between humor and physical health, including those of the present study. Further research is thus needed to determine whether more careful discrimination of humor styles, such as that provided by the HSQ, may yield more promising ndings. Future research using more sophisticated conceptualizations of humor should also examine more carefully various potential mechanisms by which dierent types of humor may inuence health either positively or negatively. For example, more aliative forms of humor may lead to greater social support, which may in turn buer the adverse eects of stress on physical health (Martin 2001). On the other hand, highly extraverted forms of humor may be associated with more health-impairing habits and behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. Thus, more ne-grained analyses may lead to a better understanding of ways in which some forms of humor may be benecial for physical health, while other forms of humor may have adverse health eects. University of Joensuu and University of Western Ontario

Correspondence address: Paavo Kerkka nen, Department of Psychology, University of Joensuu, PL 111, 80100 Joensuu, Finland; sompanen@cc.joensuu.

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