The purpose and function of humour in health, health care and nursing: a narrative review

J Adv Nurs. 2008 Mar;61(6):584-95. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04548.x.


Aim: This paper is a report of a review conducted to identify, critically analyse and synthesize the humour literature across a number of fields related to health, health care and nursing.

Background: The humour-health hypothesis suggests that there is a positive link between humour and health. Humour has been a focus of much contention and deliberation for centuries, with three theories dominating the field: the superiority or tendentious theory, the incongruity theory and the relief theory.

Data sources: A comprehensive literature search was carried out in January 2007 using a number of databases, keywords, manual recursive searching and journal alerts (January 1980-2007) cross-referenced with the bibliographic databases of the International Society of Humor Studies. An inclusion and exclusion criterion was identified.

Review methods: A narrative review of evidence- and non-evidence-based papers was conducted, using a relevant methodological framework with additional scrutiny of secondary data sources in the latter. Humour theories, incorporating definition, process and impact constituted a significant part of the appraisal process.

Results: A total of 1630 papers were identified, with 220 fully sourced and 88 included in the final review. There is a dearth of humour research within nursing yet, ironically, an abundance of non-evidence-based opinion citing prerequisites and exclusion zones. Examination of physician-patient interaction and the humour-health hypothesis demonstrates that use of humour by patients is both challenging and revealing, particularly with regard to self-deprecating humour.

Conclusion: Nurses and nursing should adopt a circumspect and evidenced-based approach to humour use in their work.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Burnout, Professional / psychology*
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Humans
  • Laughter / psychology*
  • Laughter Therapy / psychology*
  • Nursing Care / psychology*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Wit and Humor as Topic*