A stress reaction to challenging people and situations may be expressed by anger, hostility, aggression or seething inward rage. These instinctive reactions have their obvious drawbacks, but are altogether too common. There are other, more adaptive and sublimated responses (see this post for a complete list) that can turn angry reactions into assertiveness, the ability to effectively stand up for one’s rights, to engage in a respectful and yet passionate discussion of opposing points of view, an energy-releasing all-out workout at the gym, or humor. There is an abundance of evidence that proves the therapeutic value of humor. When used appropriately, this 100% natural remedy against stress is an adaptive, cathartic release of tension, a safe outlet for hostility and anger, and an effective defense against depression. Moreover, humor not only indicates emotional intelligence but also causes healthy neurological, immunological and physical changes. The mere act of laughter immediately increases muscular and respiratory activity, elevates the heart rate and stimulates the production of anti-stress hormones.
What Psychologists Say About Humor
American psychologist and psychotherapist Gordon Allport, in his research The Nature of Prejudice reported that 94% of people he questioned said their sense of humor was either average or above average. Allport stated that “the neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure” (p. 280).
American existential psychologist and author Rollo May, in Existence, suggested that humor has the function of “preserving the sense of self. . . It is the healthy way of feeling a ‘distance’ between one’s self and the problem, a way of standing off and looking at one’s problem with perspective” (p. 54).
Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, shared as his learned experience that, “to detach oneself from even the worst conditions is a uniquely human capability.” He specified that this distancing of oneself from aversive situations derives “not only through heroism . . . but also through humor” (p. 16–17).
American physician and psychologist Raymond Moody (Glimpses of Eternity and Life After Loss: Conquering Grief and Finding Hope), noted for his well-researched studies on grief, loss and the possibility of an after-life, also pointed to the ability to detach oneself as intrinsic to humor: “A person with a ‘good sense of humor’ is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way” (p. 4).
What Is Humor?
Humor is expressed in many ways: verbally (a funny story, joke, stand-up routine), visually (a mime’s movements, funny faces and gestures) or behaviorally (slapstick, pie-in-the-face comedy). It can be triggered by a book, hours-long stage or film productions or by just a few words, as in this very short story,
A passenger carried his own bomb onto a plane. When questioned by the TSA, he said that it was for his own safety, because the odds of there being two bombs on the same plane are virtually nil.
What makes this story humorous? The stress-relieving fun of it lies in the entirely natural and universal human need to seek safety and reassurance, which is however expressed by integrating two contradictory beliefs, no matter how absurd the result. In fact, it is the absurdity or incongruity of the synthesis that is the essence of humor.
Humor is therefore a mental capacity, the skill of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous. Its effectiveness, i.e. the difference between funny and inappropriate, depends on the incongruity between what we expect to happen or to be said and what we perceive with our senses. Not all incongruity is humorous: in addition to being there, the incongruous must also be meaningful or appropriate, and must be at least partially resolved.
Humor and Human Development
In developmental psychology, humor is a form of play expressed by the manipulation of images, symbols, and ideas. Humor can be detected in infants of about 18 months of age who have acquired the ability to manipulate symbols and objects. Some believe that humor may be present in infants as young as four months old if humor is defined as the ability to perceive incongruities in a playful way and accept them without distress.
From a very early age, humor serves a number of social functions. Beginning in early adolescence and into young adulthood, humor can be an effective coping strategy, can reinforce interpersonal connections, or can be used to test the status of relationships.
One of the most important signs of a healthy self-esteem and maturity is the ability to laugh at one’s own shortcomings and mistakes. Most prominently in adulthood, humor is often used to express forbidden feelings or attitudes in a socially acceptable way, a device at least as old as the Renaissance fool or court jester who was, up to a point, allowed to speak of unpleasant truths and openly mock those in positions of authority.
Humor and Mental Health
It is a recognized fact in mental health practice that the presence of humor in a person’s narrative is a healthy way of reducing anxiety and indicates the ability of reasserting mastery over a situation. Conversely, one of the clear signs of depression is the inability to appreciate or use humor in any situation.
A judicious use of humor ushers in the opportunity to detach from the most painful aspects of a situation, albeit briefly, and exercise some control over its impact by laughing at the seemingly inescapable predicament. This dynamic, psychological attempt at regaining control by interjecting an element of incongruity is concretized in this popular German witticism about two contrasting points of view, “In Berlin, the situation is serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, the same situation is hopeless but not serious.”
A 2005 study by Zweyer and Velker conducted at the Department of Psychology, Section on Personality and Assessment of the University of Zurich, 56 female participants were assigned randomly to three groups, each having a different task to pursue while watching a funny film: (1) get into a cheerful mood without smiling or laughing, (2) smile and laugh extensively, and (3) produce a humorous commentary to the film. Their pain tolerance was measured using a cold presser device before, immediately after, and 20 minutes after the film. Results indicated that pain tolerance increased for participants from before to after watching the funny film and remained high for the 20 minutes. Participants low in trait seriousness had an overall higher pain tolerance. Subjects with a high score in group 1 showed an increase in pain tolerance after producing humor while watching the film whereas subjects with a low score showed a similar increase after smiling and laughter during the film.
The functions of the immune system that are essential for good health are known to be strongly affected by psychological experiences. Stressful events often result in immunosuppression, which leaves the body highly vulnerable to illnesses. Dillon, Minchoff, and Baker (1985) hypothesized that if stress and negative emotions can cause immunosuppression, it may also be true that humor, a positive emotional state, may be a potential enhancer of the immune system. In testing their hypothesis, they found that laughter induced by a humorous video caused a measurable and significant increase in concentrations of salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA), which is often described as the first line of defense against upper respiratory infection. Later research by Dillon and Totten (1989) replicated and expanded on these findings. Working with a group of mothers who were breastfeeding their infants, they found a strong relationships between humor and S-IgA.
Further connections between humor and immune system functioning were established by Lefcourt, Davidson, and Kueneman in 1990, who found that the presentation of humorous material resulted in increased concentrations of S-IgA. When the humorous material was universally rated by participants as being highly funny (they used the video “Bill Cosby Live” for this research), S-IgA concentrations of most participants increased. However, when the humorous material produced variation in funniness ratings (when they used Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000-Year-Old Man” video), larger increases were found only among some of the participants.
Changes in immune system activity with laughter are not restricted solely to immunoglobulin A concentrations. Berk et al., in their 1988 study, reported that mirthful laughter while watching a humorous film was associated with increased spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis (production of white cells) and increased natural killer cell activity.
Because immunosuppression appears to commonly occur in stressful circumstances when negative emotions are triggered, these findings would suggest that humor reduces negative emotions and/or increases positive emotions, with a corresponding beneficial effects on the functions of the immune system.
In addition to interacting with immune system functioning, humor has also been found to influence physiological responses associated with stress. In a landmark study, Berk et al. (1989) examined the effects of humor on neuroendocrine hormones that are involved in classical stress responses. The study participants were asked to watch a 60-minute humorous video during which blood samples were taken every 10 minutes. A control group of people who were not watching the funny video were asked to enjoy 60 minutes of “quiet time” during which they were exposed to neutral stimuli. Blood samples were tested for the presence of eight hormones which usually change during stressful experiences, such as corticotrophin (ACTH), cortisol, beta-endorphin, 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (dopac, a metabolite of the neurotransmitter dopamine), epinephrine, norepinephrine, growth hormone, and prolactin. Five of the eight hormones were found to have measurably decreased among participants who watched the funny video, while they remained virtually unchanged in the control group.
The importance of humor in prolonged stress situations, and its effectiveness as a stress-reducer, can hardly be overemphasized. The ability to laugh, not only with others but also at oneself, is a vital skill of survival that promotes better adaptation to adversity. Former prisoners of war have claimed that single instances of a humorous circumstance made them feel better for weeks to months later. A remarkable example of how humor can serve as an emotion-focused coping response in highly stressful circumstances is the case of Brian Keenan, whose powerful book An Evil Cradling: The Five-Year Ordeal of a Hostage describes the way in which he and other hostages in Lebanon used humor to survive their incredible ordeals during five years of captivity.