Psychological Benefits of Humor
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” - E.B. White
Victor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., was an Austrian born Psychiatrist who survived, in remarkable fashion, the absolute horror of being a prisoner in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Frankl, in his renowned Man's Search for Meaning (1946) wrote, "Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.” Frankl continued, “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent"
Norman Cousins was, among other things, a famous writer and editor. Cousins story speaks to the incredible power of laughter. In his celebrated work An Anatomy of an Illness, Cousin’s chronicles how he used humor, specifically Marx Brothers films, to battle back from his own debilitating illness and the depression he suffered as a result has been widely publicized. He writes, "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."
Patch Adams, trained as a medical doctor and a clown, and his efforts to use laughter to promote healing have been widely publicized as well as countless others who have extolled the virtues of using humor as a coping mechanism. Some theories, such as the Incongruity Theory of Humor, posit that Humor results from the contrast between two inconsistent ideas. We have the perception that a thing will turn out a certain way and we laugh when the actual outcome is something different altogether. We laugh at things that surprise us because they seem out of place.
The Superiority Theory of Humor purports that humor is nothing more than the unexpected positive emotions we experience when we feel a sense of eminence over others. The Superiority Theory is captured in the following Mel Brooks quote, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
”Freud (1960), in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: Humor is employed as a substitute means of expressing aggressive impulses that would otherwise be socially restricted.From a psychoanalytic perspective, humor is seen as a way to cathartically release built-up psychic tensions.Since the superego represses id oriented aggressive drives, one must have a more socially accepted means of letting go of this energy. In this way, the individual uses language or behavior that is humorous in nature to act out these aggressions, thus providing the individual with a sense of relief in a manner that is acceptable both to superego and to society.
Recent research by Rod Martin, Ph.D.,University of Western Ontario, asserts that sense of humor is multidimensional, potentially having both adaptive and maladaptive properties:
Positive (adaptive) humor styles
Affiliative: someone who attempts to be funny in an effort to amuse others, sometimes to enhance relationships and possibly as a way of bringing levity to a situation.
Self-enhancing: someone who uses humor as a lens through which life is filtered, someone who can laugh at life even when it is hard.
Negative (maladaptive) humor styles
Aggressive: using humor in a mean way, without regard for the impact that it might have on others feelings, as might be the case when one is sarcastic or engages in such behaviors as teasing or putting others down.
Self-defeating: when one uses humor at their own expense, one who teases or puts themselves down in an effort to amuse others.
Literature suggests that one’s ability to use their humor to facilitate coping may depend on which type of humor style they demonstrate, adaptive or maladaptive.
It has been noted in the literature as well that humor is closely associated with optimal physical health. There is fairly consistent evidence that humor is associated with: increased pain tolerance, enhances recovery from illness, lower stress hormones, enhanced immune system functioning, and lower blood pressure. In one study, requests for pain medication in the days following orthopedic surgery were significantly fewer as were dosage levels needed in patients given the opportunity to watch funny films of their choosing during recovery.
Try and be able to see that there are funny situations all around us. Create and share jokes. Most healing humor arises spontaneously out of situations. If I was able to give a directive, it would be to try and both initiate and appreciate humor with people you interact with. But the big picture is to, in a sense, develop a "comic vision"--a way of perceiving the world that allows us to be receptive to the humor around and within us. Heightened receptivity to humor can stimulate our ability to be increasingly interactive with, and even proactive toward, the world around us.
Lee M. Stillerman, PhD