Humour and stress reduction
We have all heard that laughter is the best medicine, but how does humour help with stress reduction? Is all humour equal? How do we use it? Read on to find out more…
It seems obvious that being able to have a sense of humour about things makes stressfully situation easier to deal with. What is considered ‘funny’ varies from culture to culture (at both national, ethnic, and work/social circle levels). However, all groups invariable have some narratives and ways to talk about things which makes people smile and laugh. But it is more than ‘just a bit of a giggle’. It also seems that humour is linked to better physical and psychological outcomes1 in domains as diverse as bereavement, responses to disasters and tragedies and responses to difficult periods in our lives234. Humour has also been linked to temporarily raising our pain threshold, and make us try harder at tasks56. But evidence linking the processes through which this occurs are still not well understood (indeed, Mark Twain famously suggested that ‘explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.’’)!
What sort of funny bone do you have?
Some researchers see humour as a trait (for instance, linked with extroversions and emotionality)78.This suggests that some people have a greater or lesser ability to engage in it. However both emotionality and extroversions are things which we can become more able to engage in. Moreover, ‘structured humorous activities’ (i.e. activities which are designed to make us act humorous, or find things funny) also seem to have a generally positive effect, even when these individual differences are not taken into account. For instance, humour based activities seem to improve outcomes in a residential homes elderly population9. The type of humour seems to be important as well – positive humour seem to have more beneficial effect than nasty humour, for instance10.
My own suspicion is that humour is something that changes how we perceive events, but perhaps more importantly builds a connection with other people. This latter feature is important in that it stops you feeling overwhelmed, and acting as a psychological resource during stress appraisals. This suspicion is supported by an exception to the ‘positive humour is better’ rule – specifically, the well evidenced idea that very dark ‘gallows humour’ can psychologically buffer against stressful work events (for instance, those involving sudden death)11.
In summary, humour seems to affect physiologically (for instance, by increasing pain thresholds), by changing the way we understand events, and by facilitating important social contact.
How can we use these insights?
- Don’t underestimate the power of humour. Try and see the funny side of things (if you can’t right now, maybe seek out people who can and just be open to it!).
Focus on positive humour, rather than negative humour, where possible. Bear in mind that sometimes, so-called ‘gallows humour’ provides a unique way to reassess the meaning of terrible events…
Don’t be afraid to laugh out loud whenever you have the chance! The happiest people I know are those that never miss the opportunity for a good belly laugh 😉
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- Kuiper & Martin (1993). “Humor and self-concept”. Humor-International Journal of Humor Research. 6. doi:10.1515/humr.19126.96.36.199. ↩
- Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., & Bisconti, T. L. (2004). The role of daily positive emotions during conjugal bereavement. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59(4), P168-P176. ↩
- Moran, C., & Colless, E. (1995). Positive reactions following emergency and disaster responses. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 4(1), 55-60. ↩
- Crew Solomon, J (1996). Humor and Aging Well: A Laughing Matter or a Matter of Laughing?. American Behavioral Scientist, 3.39 ,249–271 ↩
- Dunbar, R. I., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., van Leeuwin, E. J., Stow, J., … & Van Vugt, M. (2011). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, rspb20111373. ↩
- Romero, E. J. (2005). The effect of humour on mental state and work effort. International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion, 1(2), 137-149. ↩
- Korotkov, D., & Hannah, T. E. (1994). Extraversion and emotionality as proposed superordinate stress moderators: A prospective analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 16(5), 787-792. ↩
- Ruch, W., & Carrell, A. (1998). Trait cheerfulness and the sense of humour. Personality and Individual Differences, 24(4), 551-558. ↩
- Houston, D. M., McKee, K. J., Carroll, L., & Marsh, H. (1998). Using humour to promote psychological wellbeing in residential homes for older people. Aging & Mental Health, 2(4), 328-332. ↩
- Samson, A. C., & Gross, J. J. (2012). Humour as emotion regulation: The differential consequences of negative versus positive humour. Cognition & emotion, 26(2), 375-384. ↩
- Scott, T. (2007). Expression of humour by emergency personnel involved in sudden deathwork. Mortality, 12(4), 350-364.[^1]: Ruch, W., & Carrell, A. (1998). Trait cheerfulness and the sense of humour. Personality and Individual Differences, 24(4), 551-558. ↩