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Sigmund Freud: What a Funny Guy!

freud-of-the-pampas_357025Sigmund Freud lived and worked in the Austrian capital, Vienna until the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 placed him and his family in great peril. Freud was allowed to leave Austria with his family through the intercession of his patients Princess Marie Bonaparte and William Bullitt, and diplomatic pressure by the United States. One condition imposed by the Germans for his safe conduit was that Freud state that he had been treated with due respect. In response, Freud is reported to have declared, ‘‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”

Freud viewed humor as an outlet for discharging psychic energy and reducing the emotional impact of negative events. He regarded humor as one of the most adaptive defense mechanisms.

The essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display. Freud, S. (1916)

In his groundbreaking study of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud hypothesized that jokes and dreams serve to satisfy our unconscious desires. Jokes provide their unique pleasure by allowing a temporary release of inhibitions and permitting the safe expression of sexual, aggressive, playful, or cynical instincts that would otherwise remain hidden and inexpressible. Laughter is the release of defensive tension that has been aroused by the circumstances that precede it. Tension can be elicited by behaviors, feelings or thoughts associated with anger and sexuality—in situations where their expression would be inappropriate. When ego defenses that inhibit their expression become unnecessary, as when the joke’s punch line is revealed, the energy that would be normally suppressed can be released in laughter.

There are two ways in which the process at work in humor may take place. Either one person may himself adopt a humorous attitude, while a second person acts as spectator, and derives enjoyment from the attitude of the first; or there may be two people concerned, one of whom does not himself take any active share in producing the humorous effect, but is regarded by the other in a humorous light. To take a very crude example: when the criminal who is being led to the gallows on a Monday observes, ‘Well, this is a good beginning to the week’, he himself is creating the humor; the process works itself out in relation to himself and evidently it affords him a certain satisfaction. Freud, S. (1928)

Freud also wrote “Humor” (1928), a brief paper in which humor is distinguished from wit and comicality, whereby humor represents an internalized form of forgiveness that changes one’s perspective and provides some relief from emotions associated with disappointments and failures. Likewise, humor permits the reinterpretation of failures as being of lesser importance or seriousness than initially believed, thereby transforming such failures, said Freud, into “mere child’s play.”

Humor: The All-Natural Remedy Against Stress

GinettoA 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).

mans-search-for-meaning-viktor-franklAustrian 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

BabyLaughingIn 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

Flirt_DepressionIt 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.”

{tab=Humor and Pain}
pain-signA 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.

{tab=Humor and Immunity}

ilovebacteriaThe 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.

{tab=Humor and Stress}
climate-change-bears
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.

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Something Needs to Be Done About Hostility!

Ginetto at Stresshacker.com Hostility is stressful, both ways. To giver and receiver alike, hostility metes out its toxic charge of badness. Far from being a true relief for frustration, pent-up anger, or unexpressed emotion, a sudden explosion of hostility merely releases a burst of energy and briefly discharges some muscle tension. Beyond these ephemeral effects, it is hard to find a good justification for hostility in everyday situations. So why is it so prevalent?

Two reasons account for hostility’s “popularity.” The first is the genetically programmed aggression instinct, which, in its proper setting and situation, can be useful (in a competitive physical sport like football), or downright vital (in combat situations, to fight off an aggressor, or in other situations of danger when a calm and relaxed demeanor would be clearly out of place). We can be aggressive and hostile by design, but we are also given a brain that helps mitigate the limbic system’s rage of emotions, and the amygdala’s watchfulness against aggressors, real or perceived as they may be.

The second reason for the pervasive presence of hostility is a misfiring of the very structures of the brain that are supposed to help us regulate it. Poor regulation of negative emotions can unleash hostility. Notoriously so, antisocial personalities have little to no self-regulation of hostility and most of the times this lands them in jail. Many more individuals, though, fall short of law-breaking hostility but still exhibit plenty of it in everyday situations (behind the wheel of their car, while waiting in line, with customer service people, with their spouses, children, friends) to make life more stressful for themselves and for anyone they come in contact with.

Steve Slater on Stresshacker.com At the other end of the spectrum, hostility, while present as a natural emotion, can be sublimated into a more productive and less threatening display of displeasure with someone or a situation.  Well-regulated hostility and aggressive instinct become assertiveness, standing up for one’s right, engaging in an passionate discussion. It can also sublimate into artistic pursuit, an all-out workout at the gym, or humor. A recent example of the latter was portrayed by JetBlue flight attendant Jeff Slater. Justifiably enraged by an unjustifiably aggressive passenger, Mr. Slater regulated down his hostility, expressed himself aloud on the plane’s PA system, grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, slid down to the tarmac, ran for his car and drove home.

Hostility and (Bad) Health

Negative emotional states, such as anger and hostility, when they persist over time and become chronic, can negatively impact health. The risk to health comes through a number of mechanisms, including engaging in high-risk behavior (verbally provoking, physically attacking others), loss of social support (no one wants to be with a chronically hostile individual), and social isolation.

Chronic negative emotions also induce a semi-permanent activation of the stress reaction and cause sustained systemic inflammation, both of which increase the risk of disease. Research on hostility and aggressive personality has clearly established a link between these emotional states and heart disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. Hostility not only contributes to a higher incidence and increased severity of heart disease, but is also related to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance.

What Can Be Done?

Taking a page from Mr. Slater’s playbook, humor is one of the highest levels of sublimation that can be achieved in down-regulating aggression and hostility. Other forms of self-regulation of hostility (which incidentally are also ways of dealing with stressful situations in general) can be listed as follows:

  • Anticipation (the ability to anticipate the consequences of hostility and evaluate alternative responses)
  • Affiliation (turning to others for help and support, initiating a dialogue instead of a confrontation)
  • Altruism (taking into account the needs of others, and being able to contain rather than meet their aggression head on)
  • Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
  • Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly, but without resorting to verbal or physical violence)
  • Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately, before the explosion occurs)
  • Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors, i.e. taking it out on gym equipment, a good run, a distracting activity)
  • Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts that can lead to aggression).

The 8 Best Defenses Against Stress and Those to Avoid

Earth at Stresshacker.com When we become aware of a stressor, the rising level of anxiety triggers an automatic psychological process of self-protection. This automatic defense mechanism often results in an immediate reduction of anxiety and therefore is perceived as “working” well. However, we may not be fully aware of what these defenses are and how they operate. There are 7 levels and as many as 31 different types of defense against stress, and we have a choice in selecting the ones that are most appropriate to the circumstances. And, of course, they are all available immediately and free to use.

Selecting the best defense gives us a better approach to handling the stressor and its consequences. As we make adjustments to our response, we can choose a different defense at a higher level and see how much or how little of it we need to protect ourselves against the discomfort of anxiety. We may also use more than one defense mechanism at one time. Let’s get to know what they are after the jump.

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