February 27, 2016 in Stress and Coping

Humor & Coping

By Dr. Jeanne Peterson

It seems like humor is an invaluable aid to maintaining our mentalhealth.  It’s popular theory that havinga good sense of humor and being able to laugh about life’s ups and downs isgood for our souls if not all our major bodily organs and our social lives.  But why?  And what about bad jokes – is all humorcreated equal?

People who make jokes and use a lot of humor seem to differ from thosewho do not in a few key ways. Those who self-report high use of humor are morelikely to display warmth,gregariousness, assertiveness, positive emotions, and cheerfulness. It has alsobeen found that people who indicate they use humor frequently often tend to bemore dominant, more likely to seek excitement and more likely to have greatercreativity. The use of humor may also serve to buffer people against negativity.Issues such as pessimism, high anxiety, avoidance and bad moods are more oftenexperienced by those who report little use of humor. It’s not clear whetherhumor creates resilient traits or is an outgrowth of those resilient traits.

It also seems that not all humor packs the same healthy punch.  As researchers in psychology have learnedmore about humor and coping, they have begun to realize that the type of humor we create can have asignificant effect on us.  Take comedianDon Rickles, known for his aggressive “insult” brand of humor.  No, really, in the paraphrased words of HennyYoungman, “Take Don Rickles, PLEASE!” It turns out, his humor might actually doyou more harm than good.

Over the last few years, researchers have begun to identify differenttypes of humor. One typology of humor suggests that humor can be positive -benignly enhancing your self (self-enhancing) or others (affiliative) – ornegative – enhancing yourself at the expense of others (aggressive) or puttingyourself down (self-deprecating).  Whenso much of what guides our ability to function in this world is about our viewof ourself and others, it makes sense that the type of humor we use can improveour self-concept or our relationships or do exactly the opposite.  One study found that self-enhancing humorimproved our self-esteem, optimism, mood and well-being, whereasself-deprecating humor was associated with experiences of depression andanxiety. Affiliative humor also increased our sense of social support,intimacy, optimism and cheerfulness. Aggressive humor was associated withgreater hostility and pessimism. Seemingly, as we joke, so goes our view andexperience of life.

It appears that the beneficial effects of humor may work when humorallows us to reinterpret negativeevents or issues and thereby change the emotional reactions we have.  Here is an example. In a standard study ofemotions, researchers will show subjects a series of images that have beencategorized by their emotional content.  After viewing negative imageryranging from car accidents and corpses to aggressive animals and dental exams,the subject then rates the intensity of his or her positive and negativeemotions.  In a recent study at StanfordUniversity, subjects were shown a series of negative images and before ratingthe intensity of their feelings, were first asked to improvise jokes about the pictures. Researchers found that subjectswho made any kind of quip benefited. Subjects who joked, reported both increases in positive emotions anddecreases in negative emotions in comparison to subjects who didn’t joke around.Those who were instructed to use positive humor saw the most effect. The studymay also have given people permission to experience positive emotions even inthe light of very difficult or sobering images.

This would be an interesting study to try - can you improve your view ofyourself, your life, or your challenging circumstances by bringing positivehumor to the table?  Good luck with theexperiment – You may get more than just a laugh out of it!


The key is to not think of death as an end,but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses.           – WoodyAllen