Humor in Psychology: Coping and Laughing Your Woes Away

humor in psychologyThe belief that laughter heals the mind has been around for centuries. And why not?

Humor just feels good; it distracts us from our problems and promotes a lighter perspective. For this reason, many famous quotes have been penned about the benefits of humor, such as:

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

Mark Twain (Brainyquote, BQ).

Twain had a point, as the research literature supports a relationship between humor and a wide range of positive psychosocial outcomes. This article will provide readers with an abundance of information regarding the theoretical foundations of humor within the field of psychology, as well as empirical studies linking humor to various favorable outcomes.

Meaningful quotes and additional resources are also included, along with a bit of humor sprinkled throughout.

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.

Theories of Humor in Psychology

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have been trying to explain humor since ancient times. Recent scholars have proposed several theories explaining the underlying mechanisms of humor.

Martin and Ford (2018) described the three top humor theories. First, Relief Theory focuses primarily on the motivational mechanisms of interpersonal needs, positing that humor provides relief of tension. The authors describe this as akin to a hydraulic engine, with laughter serving the function of a steam pipe pressure valve. In this way, pent-up pressure is relieved through laughter.

More specifically, the muscular and respiratory processes involved in laugher serve the important role of releasing pent-up nervous energy (Martin & Ford, 2018).

Many of us may relate to high anxiety situations where a joke feels like a much-needed outlet. For example, in a famous scene on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary is distressed by the death of Chuckles the Clown—who, while dressed as a peanut, was killed by an elephant in a circus parade.

Mary is deeply offended by office jokes following the parade incident. However, she finds herself overwhelmed with an anxious energy that finally reaches its peak at the clown’s funeral—where she is mortified by her inability to stop her pressure valve of nervous laughter.

The second theory described by Martin and Ford (2018) is the Superiority Theory, which focuses on interpersonal motivational mechanisms, with humor resulting as a function of self-esteem enhancement. In this way, humor results from feelings of triumph over the errors or misfortune of others, which promotes self-enhancement and feelings of superiority.

Incongruity Theory, which focuses on the cognitive mechanisms of perception and interpretation, posits that it is the perceptions of incongruity that explain humor (Martin & Ford, 2018). In other words, laughter is a function of anticipating a different outcome than what was expected.

Incongruity theory is believed to be the most influential humor theory, with some proposing that “incongruity is at the core of all humor” (Zhan, 2012, p. 95). This theory is intuitive, as a joke with an expected or obvious punchline is simply not funny. Instead, laughter occurs in response to unexpected punch lines or those that go against usual patterns (Wilkins & Eisenbraun, 2009).

I was raised as an only child. My siblings took it pretty hard.

 

Humor as a Character Strength

humor as a character strengthPositive psychologists have a keen interest in the role of character strengths, which have been described as virtues that are crucial to human thriving (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Peterson and Seligman (2004) propose six virtues and 24 character strengths that fall within each virtue category (a few examples below):

  • Wisdom and knowledge; Character Strengths: Creativity & Curiosity
  • Humanity; Character Strengths: Kindness & Love
  • Justice; Character Strengths: Fairness & Leadership
  • Transcendence; Character Strengths: Gratitude & Humor

Proposed links between humor and positive wellbeing are intuitive, as it makes sense that those with a good sense of humor will be in a better position to weather difficult situations; to enjoy more cohesive relationships; to find humor in all sorts of experiences, and to benefit from more positive mental and physical health (Martin, 2019).

These ideas are supported by empirical research, and here are several examples:

  • Engaging in a humor exercise is associated with a positive mood (Edwards, 2013) and positive cognitive appraisals (Maiolino & Kuiper, 2016).

  • A sense of humor is associated with increased life satisfaction and a pleasurable and engaged life (Ruch, Proyer & Weber, 2010).

  • Humor has been reported as among the top eight of 24 character strengths and is associated with increased life satisfaction, life engagement, and life pleasure (Samson & Antonelli, 2013).

  • Adaptive humor is linked with increased stable positive mood and decreased stable negative mood (Cann & Collette, 2014).

An important caveat to the above findings is that the type of humor a person exhibits also plays a key role in determining its impact. This idea is evident in Can and Collette’s study (2014), as positive outcomes were associated with self-enhancing humor.

Detrimental humor (e.g., sarcasm and self-disparaging humor), on the other hand, is believed to have potentially negative ramifications such as reduced relationship quality and low self-esteem (Martin, 2019). Therefore, it is suggested that the absence of detrimental humor is equally important to the presence of prosocial humor styles (Martin, 2019).

These findings have been supported by other research studies, such as that by Maiolino and Kuiper (2016), who investigated the ability of humor to predict positive outcomes.

The researchers found that greater wellbeing was related to affiliative and self-enhancing humor; whereas, reduced wellbeing was linked to aggressive and self-defeating humor (Maiolino & Kuiper, 2016).

Similarly, in their review, Stieger, Formann, and Burger, (2011) reported that self-defeating humor was linked to depression and loneliness; whereas, self-enhancing humor was related to beneficial outcomes.

A sandwich walks into a bar. The barman says “Sorry we don’t serve food in here.”

 

Coping or Defense Mechanisms

What is a defense mechanism?

The concept of defense mechanisms originated in psychoanalytic theory. Defense mechanisms are believed to protect the ego from emotional pain through the unconscious mind’s distortion of reality.

The use of defense mechanisms may have positive or negative ramifications depending upon the particular mechanism and how it is used. For example, the mechanism of denial, when used by addicts, serves as a barrier to accepting the addiction and seeking help. In contrast, a person who is not yet ready to face trauma may use mechanisms such as regression or suppression as protective mechanisms until ready to face the situation.

Humor also may function as an adaptive ego defense by enabling people to perceive the comical absurdity in highly challenging situations. In this respect, humor serves as both a defense mechanism and a way of coping with adversity.

Research has supported this idea. For example, in a study by Samson, Glassco, Lee, and Gross (2014), humorous coping applied after viewing negative pictures was found to increase positive emotions at both short and longer-term follow-up.

 

Using Humor to Cope with Medical Problems

While more research is sorely needed, extant literature suggests that humor may have many benefits among patients, such as enhanced immunity and positive emotions, improved interpersonal relationships, reduced pain, and increased positive emotions (see review by Gelkopf, 2011).

However, most evidence proposing a link between humor and improved health is anecdotal. For example, among physicians who do the exceedingly difficult work of treating cancer patients, humor has been reported as beneficial for patients, doctors, and relationships between the two (Joshua, Cotroneo, & Clarke, 2005).

Hope may represent a powerful mechanism through which humor brings relief to patients, as evidenced in research addressing the impact of humor on terminally ill patients (Herth, 1990). The results of this study indicated that 85% of patients believed that humor helped them to deal with reality by empowering hope.

The use of humor in medicine also has been studied from the perspective of healthcare workers. For example, among physicians who work with dying patients, humor has been reported as one of eight coping mechanisms used to handle the extreme stress involved in doing this type of work (Schulman-Green, 2003).

Similarly, other researchers have suggested that gallows humor is beneficial for emergency personnel by providing an outlet for painful emotions and by enhancing support via group cohesion (Rowe & Regehr, 2010).

Among nurses, humor has been related to lower emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, and increased personal accomplishment (Talbot & Lumden, 2000), as well as greater coping efficacy and emotional expressivity (Wanzer, Booth-Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield, 2005).

 

Using Humor to Cope with Mental Illness

As with other forms of illness, it is logical to propose that humor enhances coping among individuals dealing with mental health issues. The substantive literature is again lacking; however, some studies do show that humor serves as an important coping mechanism for psychiatric patients.

For example, one study examined the impact of humorous films on various psychological symptoms among schizophrenia inpatients. The researchers found reductions in anger, anxiety, psychopathology, and depression among participants (Gelkopf, Gonen, Kurs, Melamed, & Bleich, 2006).

In another study examining the effectiveness of humor among individuals with mental illness, a humor-based activity involving clowns (i.e., the “therapeutic clown approach”) was implemented among psychiatric ward inpatients. During the humor activity period, patients were reported as having significant decreases in multiple disruptive behaviors—including self-injury, fighting, and attempted escapes (Higueras et al., 2006).

‘What are you allergic to?’ queried a stressed nurse as a gunshot victim was rushed into the ER. Patient: ‘Bullets!’

 

18 Examples of Humor as a Strength

examples of humor as a strengthAlong with helping to promote resilience and coping with stress and illness, humor also serves as an invaluable strength associated with various indices of psychological wellbeing, work-related benefits, learning, and creativity.

It also is advantageous for both elderly and child populations. Here are 18 examples of studies showing evidence of humor as a strength:

 

Humor and Psychological Strengths

There is something to be said for not taking everything too seriously. Internalizing criticism erodes self-esteem, a process that may be inhibited by a good sense of humor. This idea is borne out by research such as that by Liu (2012), who conducted a study with undergraduate students in Hong Kong. The results indicated that adaptive humor was linked to higher levels of self-esteem and happiness.

Similarly, Vaughan, Zeigler-Hill, & Arnau (2014) addressed stable and unstable self-esteem among college students and found that participants with stable high self-esteem were lower in less adaptive forms of humor (i.e., self-defeating humor). Additionally, a study addressing the benefits of humor, music, and aerobic exercise on anxiety among women indicated that effect sizes were highest for those in the humor group (Szabo, Ainsworth, & Danks, 2005).

 

Humor on the Job

There is good reason to believe that humor at work leads to many positive outcomes, such as increased work performance and enhanced relationships with coworkers (Cooper, 2008). Additionally, in their comprehensive review, Cooper & Sosik (2012) reported that humor at the workplace was linked to enhanced relationships, more creative thinking, more collaborative negotiations, and better customer relations.

Similarly, Mesmer‐Magnus, Glew, and Viswesvaran (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 49 studies focusing on the impact of humor in the workplace. Positive humor was found to buffer the impact of work stress on mental health, as well as to promote more effective functioning on the job.

More specific workplace benefits of humor included lower stress, burnout, and subordinate work withdrawal; and increased amounts of effective coping effectiveness, health, team cohesion, and both job performance and satisfaction.

 

Humor and Education

Not only does humor have the ability to make school more enjoyable, but it is beneficial in various meaningful ways. For example, among college students enrolled in language courses, 72% noted that humor enhanced their interest in subject matter, 82% reported that the instructor’s use of humor made them more approachable, and 82% indicated that humor created an environment more conducive to learning (Askildson, 2005).

The humor students bring to the classroom is also essential. For example, in a study exploring humor among undergraduate students, a sense of humor was positively related to both sociability and creativity (Ghayas & Malik, 2013). The intentional use of classroom humor also has been linked to enhanced learning among nursing students (Ulloth, 2002).

Humor in the classroom also is believed to promote social and emotional development among children (Lovorn, 2008).

 

Humor as a Strength among the Elderly

While there is a paucity of research addressing humor among older people, there is some evidence of its potential to enhance the quality of life within this group. For example, research by Ganz and Jacobs (2014) indicated that attending a humor therapy workshop was associated with positive mental health outcomes among seniors.

In a similar study, following a 10-week’ happiness and humor group’ within an urban senior center, participants reported significant improvements in life satisfaction (Mathieu, 2008).

Coping humor also has been associated with increased social support and self-efficacy among older community-dwelling adults (Marziali, McDonald & Donahue, 2008). Lastly, following humor therapy sessions, elderly nursing home residents showed a reduced duration of agitation and an increased duration of happiness (Low et al., 2015).

 

Humor as a Strength among Children

Among humans, laughter begins as early as four months of age (Lovorn, 2008). A child with a well-developed sense of humor has been described as “becoming a joy tracker or humor spotter in everyday life…a point of view that will be carried into adulthood” (Franzini, 2002, p. 11).

Indeed, by nurturing their sense of humor, adults equip children with important coping skills (Martin, 2008). Children have reported such benefits, noting that humor increases their ability to cope with stressors associated with relationships, school-related activities, and life at home (Dowling, 2014).

Additionally, humor may represent a vital strength during middle childhood by helping kids to gain the support of a peer group and by enhancing self-esteem (Klein & Kuiper, 2006).

A comprehensive look at how children are impacted by the experience of humor is described by Hogan (2003), who noted that humor benefits children in terms of enhanced social bonding, stress relief, and pain coping. Growing up with humor sets children on a more positive pathway; as, once they begin college, humor is predictive of better college adjustment (Hickman & Crossland, 2004).

Sign on a Repair Shop door: We Can Repair Anything. (Please knock hard on the door, the bell doesn’t work.)

 

Humor’s Role in Stress

There is little doubt that humor enables people to cope better with stress. It has long been believed that “humor and laughter play an important role in the maintenance of both psychological and physiological health and wellbeing in the face of stress” (Lefcourt & Martin, 1986).

Research supports this connection. For example, in a study by Abel (2002), coping strategies were examined concerning humor and various types of stress. Participants were categorized into either high or low sense of humor groups. It was found that those within the high sense of humor category appraised relatively lower amounts of stress and anxiety. (Abel, 2002).

The impact of humor on stress also was investigated in a medical study using humor as a complementary therapy among cancer patients (Bennett, Zeller, Rosenberg, & McCann, 2003). After watching a funny video, cancer patients reported significantly less stress, and a negative correlation was found between stress and amount of mirthful laughter.

Interestingly, those who were higher in humor scores were also found to have increased immune functioning (Bennett et al., 2003). In general, research reviews have documented that positive styles of humor are related to lower perceptions of stress (Mauriello & McConatha, 2007).

I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn’t find any.

 

6 Ways to Explore and Maximize This Strength

improve humor by playing with a petSince we know humor represents an essential strength with all sorts of excellent benefits, it is in our best interest to maximize it as much as possible.

If you don’t find yourself laughing nearly enough, here are six things you can do:

  • Watch or listen to stand-up comedy: Many comedians have filmed their shows and thus made them widely available. Additionally, listening to comedians while walking or jogging creates a far more enjoyable experience—especially for those who don’t enjoy exercising.

  • Spend more time around funny people: This idea is simple—if you have amusing people in your life, hanging around them is sure to make you feel better.

  • Don’t allow others to dictate what you find amusing: If you have a dark sense of humor or enjoy potty jokes, that’s okay. As long as humor is not aggressive or offensive to groups of people, go ahead and laugh.

  • Read funny books: Plenty of reading material is available for bookworms who love to laugh (please see the attached list of books below).

  • Play with a pet: It’s tough to feel blue when playing with a puppy or kitten. If you have access to animals, they may do wonders to make your heart smile.

  • Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner child: Adults often feel that they must always behave in an “age-appropriate” way. However, if being silly and playful made you happy at age 12, it probably still will. Don’t deprive yourself of happiness because of perceived pressure to act a certain way.

Two cannibals are eating a clown.  One says to the other: “Does this taste funny to you?”

 

A Brief Look at Dark Humor

Dark or twisted humor is an acquired taste, as not everyone appreciates the taboo humor others find in disturbing subject matter. But, for people who experience stressful jobs or complicated family dynamics, dark humor often serves as an important protective mechanism.

This concept is exemplified by the ability of healthcare workers to employ dark humor as a way of coping with chronic job stress (e.g., Schulman-Green, 2003; Talbot & Lumden, 2000; Wanzer et al., 2005).

Importantly, gallows humor used in this way is not aggressive or hurtful to others. This idea is explained by Wanzer et al. (2005) in their aptly titled article: “If We Didn’t Use Humor, We’d Cry.”

The authors note that nurses use humor to deal with specific situations such as daily medical routines, difficult patients/families, and even death. And, while approaching such situations with humor may not make sense to others, humor helps nurses to deal with their distress when dealing with extremely difficult situations regularly (Wanzer et al., 2005).

Dark humor also has been found to enhance resilience during some of the most horrible events in human history. For example, during the Holocaust, victims reported using humor in ghettos, concentration, and death camps to better cope with extreme trauma and adversity (Ostrower, 2015).

Ostrower (2015) describes humor coping within this context as a defense mechanism that “under the nightmare circumstances of living in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust, laughter was a form of rebellion against reality. Humor was the weapon of those whose lives were utterly in the hands of the executioners, those who were powerless to rebel or resist in any other way” (p. 184).

Along with the Holocaust, dark humor has been used as a coping and survival mechanism across a broad range of life-threatening situations.

First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me.

Steve Martin (Goodreads, GR)

 

8 Quotes on the Subject

laughter is a sunbeam of the soulThere is no shortage of quotes about humor (and humorous quotes) available online, here are eight terrific examples:

The earth laughs in flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (GR)

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Gandhi (BQ)

People with a sense of humor tend to be less egocentric and more realistic in their view of the world and more humble in moments of success and less defeated in times of travail.

Bob Newhart (GR)

Laughter is a sunbeam of the soul.

Thomas Mann (GR)

I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.

WC Fields (GR)

If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.

Robert Frost (GR)

Honest good humor is the oil and wine of a merry meeting, and there is no jovial companionship equal to that where the jokes are rather small and laughter abundant.

Washington Irving (GR)

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

Groucho Marx (GR)

 

10 Relevant Books

Whether you are interested in learning more about the psychology of humor or in finding material that will make you laugh, plenty of books are available. Here are ten examples:

  • Humor at Work in Teams, Leadership, Negotiations, Learning and Health by Tabea Scheel & ‎Christine Gockel (Amazon)
  • Engaging Humor by Elliott Oring (Amazon)
  • Humor Theory: Formula of Laughter by Igor Krichtafovitch (Amazon)
  • Sweet Madness: A Study of Humor by William Fry (Amazon)
  • Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor by John Morreall (Amazon)
  • Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now…Before We Forget by Allia Zobel Nolan (Amazon)
  • Gallows Humor by Carolyn Elizabeth (Amazon)
  • Calypso by David Sedaris (Amazon)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (Amazon)
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron (Amazon)

So many books, so little time.

Frank Zappa

 

PositivePsychology.com Humor Resources

As humor represents an important aspect of positive psychology, here at PositivePsychology.com, we have described several ways in which humor contributes to positive wellbeing. Here are a few examples:

  • Humor is an effective way to find and build happiness. For example, laughing has a similar emotional impact to being hugged.

  • Humor is related to resilience. For example, research suggests that resilient people have many qualities in common—including humor.

  • Humor is an essential tool for enhancing teen resilience. For example, specific phrases have been identified that help kids to see the humor in stressful situations.

  • Humor may be applied as part of resilience-building activities in the classroom. For example, Helen McGrath’s Bounce Back! Program (McGrath & Noble, 2003) includes lesson plans and suggestions for resilience-building in young children. Humor is included among the resilience-promoting principles.

Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.

Paul Terry

 

A Take-Home Message

This article provides readers with a comprehensive look at humor as an important concept in positive psychology. Top humor theories are described, along with the role of humor as both a defense mechanism, as well as a character strength. Some key takeaways are as follows:

  • Self-enhancing humor is an invaluable strength that supports human thriving.

  • There are numerous positive benefits of humor, such as enhanced positive mood, life satisfaction, self-esteem, job performance, creativity, social bonding, and emotional resilience.

  • Humor plays an essential role in buffering the impact of stress and is important for positive wellbeing among both children and seniors.

Doable techniques for adding more humor to one’s life, meaningful quotes, useful books, and resources from positivepsychology.com are also included. With this collection of information, it is the hope that readers will better understand humor and its many benefits, while maybe even enjoying a few chuckles along the way.

And so, with laughter and love, we lived happily ever after.

Gail Carson Levine, GR

We hope you enjoyed reading this article and had a giggle too. Don’t forget to download our 3 Resilience Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more about resilience, consider our Realizing Resilience Masterclass©. The masterclass is a complete, science-based, 6-module resilience training template for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients overcome adversity in a more resilient way.

 

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About the Author

Heather Lonczak holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with a focus on Positive Youth Development. She has published numerous articles aimed at reducing health disparities and promoting positive psychosocial youth outcomes (e.g., academic achievement, cultural identity, mindfulness and belief in the future). Heather is also a children’s book author whose publications primarily center around the enhancement of child resilience, as well as empathy and compassion for wildlife.

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