How Humor Impacts Your Mental Health

Positive and Negative Effects of Different Types of Humor on your mental health
impact of humour on mental health
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Many of us use comedy every day to make people like us or to be relatable. Humor comes naturally to many people. For some, it is an instinct to make jokes in absurd or tense situations.

Therefore, I wondered if humor is in fact natural, or if it is a learned skill/coping mechanism. Either way, I was curious to know if humor is beneficial, especially as a coping mechanism. Humor is the most common coping mechanism, so knowing whether it is helpful is important information for anyone.  

Effects of laughter on mental health

Humor usually causes laughter. Even if it doesn’t, it can still affect your mood. Laughter is one of the first ways babies learn to express emotion. So, we learn what to laugh at from an early age.

Laughter generates several benefits for people: Increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, relaxed muscles, decreased levels of cortisol which is the stress hormone. Laughter can increase the release of endorphins, the pain-relieving chemical.

Janet Gibson, a professor emerita of cognitive psychology at Grinnell College in Iowa, said that laughter evolved in humans as a communication signal. Centuries ago, Gibson posits, humans would have used laughter to signal that the group was not in danger. It was used as a survival tool, much like people use it to cope today. Laughter brings relief from tension.

While laughter is universal, different people laugh at different things. We all have different senses of humor. This is because we have different pre-conceptions about topics that are joked about.

We have all had different experiences and upbringings. The people around us as we are growing up teach us what is “funny,” leading us to find different situations humorous. Therefore, laughter is natural, but humor is learned.

In 2003, Rod Martin and colleagues developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire which gauges the types of humor people use. The different types of humor are:

  • Affiliative humor is universal humor that can be shared with others to build relationships. Sharing memes, telling funny stories, etc.
  • Self-enhancing humor is the humor used when one is alone to relieve stress, good-naturedly laughing at absurdities of life.
  • Aggressive humor is laughing at the expense of others, ridicule, roasting.
  • Self-defeating (also known as self-deprecating) humor is putting oneself down for the entertainment of others

Positive humor would be the Affiliative and Self-enhancing humor types. The negative types of humor are Aggressive and Self-defeating.

A recent study by Marisa L. Kfrerer, Nicholas G. Martin, and Julie Aitken Schermer outline the negative and positive forms of humor and their effects on mental health.

Impact of Positive humor on mental health

Positive humor, that is not used to belittle oneself or others is continuously found to improve mental health. 

In the study, affiliative humor (humor shared with others to build relationships, funny stories) and self-enhancing humor (using humor to cope with stress, cheering up oneself) were the styles that were affiliated with non-depressed people. Affiliative humor allows one to share experiences with others.

Causing other people to laugh makes them like you, but it also boosts self-confidence which would increase positivity, in turn leading to a greater ability to use positive instead of negative humor.

Once one gets into the practice of using positive humor in public to make others laugh, it becomes more habitual to use it by oneself to cope with stress (self-enhancing humor).

Positive humor forces oneself to change perspective. Another study was done by Stanford postdoc Andrea Samson and psychology Professor James Gross which tested different humor styles found that optimistic humor is more effective than cynicism.

Study participants were asked to look at disturbing images and make a joke about them. Some used positive humor, while some used aggressive, taunting humor. For example, when showed a picture of a man disemboweling a fish, one participant said, “He always wanted to work with animals,” and another said, “Ideal workplace for people with body odor.”

Both created a positive reaction from the participant, however, a change in perspective is created for the one using positive humor. The phrase, “He always wanted to work with animals” is funny because it is so absurd and clearly forces a different perspective.

The use of positive humor led to higher levels of creativity since subjects had to create an entirely new situation in their minds. The phrase, “Ideal workplace for people with body odor,” is disparaging and does not create a new situation for the man disemboweling the fish. It simply adds a new humorous, but a negative element to the same situation.

Impact of Negative humor on mental health

The Aggressive and Self-defeating humor styles are the ones most likely to be used by people who are depressed. However, the aggressive style, which is humor focused on making fun of others, was used about the same amount in each group of depressed/non-depressed people.

Aggressive humor can make a person feel better about themselves. Several comedians use this type of humor to make disparaging, stereotypical comments about groups they have observed. It is still a creative process to make nasty comments about others.

Therefore, it improves cognitive functions and creativity much like positive humor. Aggressive humor also makes people laugh which is where the real mental health improvement would come from building relationships and self-confidence.

However, according to the Kfrerer, Martin, and Schermer study, if you are a person who is prone to depression, staying away from self-deprecation would be a good idea. The self-defeating humor style was the one that correlated the most with depression.  

Self-deprecating humor is humor that puts oneself down, often for the entertainment of other people. It causes one to lower their self-confidence if used too much. 

Self-deprecating humor provides a variety of results regarding mental health. Matthew Pike of Talkspace writes “The point of self-deprecation is to make light of your flaws and come to terms with the imperfections of humanity, not validate insecurities.”

Therefore, there are positive effects of self-deprecating humor. It can humble you and make you more empathetic to others’ struggles. If you have accepted your imperfections, you will be more understanding of others. It also makes you approachable because if you are busy making fun of yourself, you are less likely to do it to others. 

However, for some people, self-deprecation has more negative than positive effects. I used to use self-deprecating humor often until I found out that your brain doesn’t know when you are joking.

If you say bad things about yourself even in a joking way, it lowers your self-esteem.  Self-deprecating humor may have some upsides, like people may think you are trustworthy or confident. However, if you are too over the top, your jokes will fall flat.

For instance, self-deprecating humor is often funny because it is unexpected. If someone is taking out the trash and you step into a garbage bag and say, “don’t forget me,” it is not funny. 

However, your friends can get tired of hearing your self-deprecation because it comes off as low self-confidence. They will be more concerned than amused the more you do it.

Since your friends like you, if you say something incredibly negative about yourself, they are not going to think it is funny. If you are saying negative things about yourself all the time, it chips away at your confidence, making you more depressed.

You will also start to be deprecating to yourself when you are alone. You may start to think to yourself that you are stupid when you make a mistake, or that you “can’t do anything right.” 

This type of thinking is difficult to shake and comes out when you speak to other people. It then becomes a repeating cycle where your jokes fall flat, you feel bad about yourself, and you continue to think bad things about yourself. You can, of course, learn to substitute these thoughts with positive humor.

If you find it difficult to use positive humor yourself, you can learn to recognize when others are using self-deprecating humor. If you start to tell others that they should not use that type of humor about themselves, it will help you to stop using it about yourself.

Healthy Ways to Use Humor as a coping mechanism 

Learning to break cycles of rumination caused by depression and exacerbated by self-deprecation can be done by practicing reframing, the technique used in the Samson and Gross study.

Since humor is learned, anyone can learn to change their humor style. Reframing is simply looking at a bad or disturbing situation and trying to change the context in your mind to something humorous. It is very similar to the use of the spell “Riddikulus” in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

One can make a game out of mundane or annoying tasks. Counting the number of times the same annoying thing happens to you, for instance, a customer ignoring you at your job, can be funny because the number of times it happens maybe an absurd amount. 

Imagining extremes is a fun way to make yourself see that you may need to “big picture” a situation because you are getting frustrated at something small. For instance, if you are in line at a drive-thru and it feels as though it is taking forever, imagining that you will be there until you are old and have long gray hair is a funny way to realize that in the grand scheme of your life, you will not be there that long. 

Utilizing positive humor to improve your life only takes some practice. Since it is a fun activity to practice, you can do it any time that you feel angry or upset which will make it become a habit.

All types of humor will relieve stress, but trying positive optimistic humor is proven to make you feel better. So, if humor is your coping mechanism, try using less aggressive/self-deprecating humor and try optimistic humor.

I love science podcasts and mystery novels. I am an aspiring journalist and spend most of my free time writing.

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