9: Humor and Mental Health

In recent decades, psychologists have considered a sense of humor to be an important component of mental health, particularly in its ability to mitigate negative emotions such as depression and anxiety as well as coping with stressful life events and functioning as a useful social skill.

There has also been in recent years a trend in clinical psychology toward maintenance of a positive mental health, rather than merely seeking to address distress and disorders, and in this sense humor is a useful topic.

Humor and Emotional Well-Being

Mirth, as a positive emotion, causes a person to feel more cheerful and energetic as well as less depressed, anxious, irritable, and tense. As humor is the mechanism by which mirth is caused, it is considered to be beneficial to mental health in the ability to experience positive emotions and manage negative ones.

Investigation of Humor and Emotions

The author reviews studies that explore the connection between humor and mood:

The author pauses to note that each of these experiments measures short-term impact of humor on positive and negative moods. When researchers investigated longer-term psychological effects of humor exposure, the results were "rather disappointing."

These findings raise questions as to whether there are long-term effects of humor on mood, and cast a dim light on "humor therapy" sessions.

The author mentions one study (Nevo 1998) that showed some positive correlation between mood and a training program designed to teach people to find humor in every day life - though this found only limited evidence of success.

Trait Humor and Emotional Well-Being

It stands to reason that if humor is beneficial to psychological well-being, then individuals who engage in humor more frequently in everyday life should tend to show less incidence of psychiatric disorders (depression and anxiety), which "numerous studies" have investigated.

(EN: My sense is the premise is flawed, and it could well be that people who are more prone to depression or anxiety use humor more often as a coping mechanism - and might therefore have higher incidence.)

While these and other studies seem to correlate humor to emotional well-being, the definitions of both are too disparate and the evidence too weak to conclusively state that a positive correlation exists in general.

Healthy and Unhealthy Humor Styles

People leverage humor in their interactions with others in many different ways and for many different purposes. Because humor is used in some instances to create social cohesion and in other instances to create social distance, it is reckoned that the humor style is significant to assessing whether humor is to be regarded as healthy or unhealthy.

Classical psychologists had differing perspectives on humor, but the author suggests that their general statements failed to reflect the kind of humor they were describing. Freud, for example, considered humor to be the "highest" among defense mechanisms and "something fine and elevating" whereas Maslow, some thirty years later, considered humor to be self-aggrandizing in a way that was harmful to socialization, and that a well-adjusted person would be sober and serious in most instances.

Turning to his own consideration of humor styles, the author suggests:

Other studies that are focused on specific uses of humor (Cheerfulness Inventory and Humor Coping Scale) inherently equate certain forms of humor with healthy behavior - and there are no existing instruments for assessing humor in its harmful capacity (an aggressive humor scale does not exist).

Humor, Stress, and Coping

It is presumed that stress that arises in everyday life has a negative impact on mental and physical health, and humor is presumed to be a mechanism that reduces stress - which has been supported by many theorists over the years.

Aside of the immediate physical effects of mirth, humor deals with incongruities that cause a person to think about things in different ways and to recognize when a perspective is inappropriate or self-defeating. It is presumed that this ability is then applied to other situations to grant a person the perspective that some things are really not as important as they may at first seem and merit less anxiety and worry than they are given.

The various styles of humor can be seen as coping mechanisms because of the perspective they impart:

Humor is also a way for a person to laugh at his own faults, failures, and limitations while maintaining self-esteem. By not taking oneself too seriously, one is able to let go of perfectionistic expectations while remaining motivated to achieve realistic goals.

A quote: "The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure." (Allport 1950)

Investigations of Humor as a Stress Moderator

The author details a number of experiences that investigate the effects of humor on stress. These these studies show a connection between humor and the self-perceptions of anxiety and stress, though experiments that used biometrics (temperature, heart rate, etc.) did not show any evidence of an effect on physical symptoms.

Sense of Humor and Coping Styles

The author refers to his styles of humor, reminding the reader that certain kinds of humor are more likely to be used to cope with stress than others - and that most humor styles may be used in different ways. For example, self-deprecating humor may be used to diminish stress by suggesting a stressor is trivial, or it may be used to express stress at one's own inability to resolve it.

The Coping Humor Scale, in particular, seeks to distinguish between the manner in which individuals employ humor in the face of stress, which relates to whether an individual sees stressors as challenges to be overcome rather than problems that cannot be overcome. That is to say, higher scores indicate a person's attitude toward a stressor, but does not necessarily indicate they experience less stress.

It's further suggested that those who make more use of coping humor may also be disengaging themselves from stressful situations in a dissociative manner - which is more a matter of avoidance than coping (Kuiper 1993). However, there is also research that demonstrates those with higher scores are more likely to engage in positive behaviors that address the problem, such as planning, problem-solving, awareness, and self-management (Abel 2002).

Humor in Coping with Specific Life Stressors

There is both anecdotal evidence and empirical research into the effects of humor in coping with specific situations, particularly those that are "extreme and uncontrollable."

The author notes that the results of these studies is "limited and somewhat mixed" - though it does show a connection between humor and coping, it also notes that some forms of humor (aggressive or macabre) may be harmful rather than beneficial.

Interpersonal Aspects of Humor in Mental Health

Until recently, research into the relationship between humor has focused on the individual - ignoring that by its very nature humor is a social phenomenon, and taking it out of its normal context may not be accurate or effective in assessing its value.

There has been a great deal of research indicating that social relationships have a profound influence on a person's level of happiness and their general psychological well being. "Socially involved people are happier, healthier, and live longer than socially isolated people do."

Research also shows that individuals with more social connections are less likely to express depression, anxiety disorders, or other forms of psychological disturbance (Segrin 2000) and that meaningful social relationships with others provide social support to mitigate the effects of stress, whereas loneliness is related to unhappiness and a range of mental and physical problems (Berscheid 1998).

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to propose that humor may play a role in the creation and maintenance of satisfying and enduring social relationships, which in turn contribute in positive ways to an individual's mental health - both in general daily life as well as during instances of distress.

Though it should also be considered that "maladaptive" uses of humor in which a person is aggressive towards others or oneself may have detrimental effects on relationships and, correspondingly, result in failure to establish social connections that would support happiness and well being.

Humor and Healthy Relationships

A number of correlational studies has positively associated humor to intimacy, empathy, social assertiveness, and interpersonal trust. Married individuals who regard their partner as having a good sense of humor also tend to be more satisfied with their relationships, and those couples in long-term relationships often attribute their satisfaction at least in part to sharing humor with their spouse.

However, in his own studies he found that when the female partner has a higher coping humor scores, the reported level of satisfaction are higher - but lower when the male partner has a higher coping humor score. In particular, women have lower tolerance or men who use humor to cope with stress (assuming humor is a sign of non-seriousness) than men have with women who use humor as a coping mechanism.

Along the same lines, recent studies have begun to draw a distinction between the kinds of humor that serve as a bonding function and other types of humor that are cruel, inappropriate, or manipulative when considering the way in which humor contributes to or detracts from relationships.

(EN: This is likely more difficult than one might assume, as any social function that establishes inclusion also establishes exclusion - such that two people who hear the same remark from the same person react differently based on whether they believe themselves to have been include or excluded by that remark. With humor, it is even more relative to the listener's assumption because incongruity may be ambiguous.)

A litany of studies follows:

Interpersonal Aspects of Coping Humor

Observations of humor in stressful situations demonstrates that it is most common for humor to be used socially (an individual under stress is seldom observed to find humor in his situation) either during or shortly after the occurrence of a stressful situation.

It is speculated that humor is used to manage negative emotions - both those of other people as well as one's own. During the course of a stressful situation, individuals leverage humor to relieve tension and mitigate the negative emotions that they are experiencing. After a stressful situation, a person uses humor to downplay the degree to which they experienced negative emotions.

A few studies are cited:

The author's sense is that this is a "very fruitful topic" for future research, and may call into question some of the earlier findings of studies that did not distinguish the kinds of humor used in coping.