Laugh it off is not always good advice to give to someone who’s experiencing stress or pain. In fact, it can be harmful to expect people to be able to brush off serious issues, to buck up, take it on the chin, or whatever euphemism you want to use for suppressing your emotions. But it turns out that in some cases, a good sense of humor really may help reduce stress levels, according to a series of new studies from Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.
In the first study, researchers at Clarkson University in upstate New York had 22 subjects with the chronic pain condition Fibromyalgia Syndrome take an intake survey about their “physical health, psychological state, their tendency to see the funny side of things (for example, they were asked whether they would typically experience mirth in situations such as a waiter spilling a drink over them), how much socializing and support they’d had with friends and relatives recently, and how much they tended to reappraise challenges, such as looking for the positives in a difficult situation.” They then had the subjects keep detailed diaries for the next four days, noting their physical and emotional states. Researchers found that the subjects more likely to find humor in more situations had a better emotional state at intake, and better physical states through the intake.
In the second study, researchers surveyed over 100 undergraduate students about their psychological and emotional states, their tendency to make jokes and find humor in everyday situations, and how much a past traumatic event still affects them. Overall, those who said that the past traumatic event still impacts them greatly had a higher likelihood of psychological and emotional distress. Except for those who were more likely to find things funny – while some of those subjects said a past trauma still impacts their life, they were less likely to be distressed.
Of course, there’s always a question of causation vs. correlation. Did the subjects who were more likely to find situations funny find it easier to laugh because they were already in less physical and emotional distress, or did their heightened sense of humor in fact help reduce their symptoms? These first two studies don’t address that question.
There was a study in 2011 that looked at the relationship between humor and distress, and tried to address the causation vs. correlation issue. This study focused on people affected by the September 11 attacks, and had them fill out two surveys – on a month after the attacks, and the second two months later – that included questions about their levels of psychological and emotional distress, and their tendency to find humor. This study found a connection between a tendency toward humor and lower levels of distress similar to the other two studies, and it also found an interesting distinction: positive humor (a cheerful outlook and genuine amusement) tended to reduce stress, while negative humor (disparaging or self-deprecating jokes) tended to exacerbate it. However, the findings of positive humor’s correlation with lower stress were statistically low enough to be questionable.
More research with careful controls would be needed to prove with real authority that having a sense of humor guards against distress, but these studies are a start.
Nobody should ever expect anyone else to shrug off serious physical or emotional distress with a laugh. If they did, they would be failing to respect what the other person is going through, and maybe even gas lighting them. But this research makes a good argument that, at the very least, we won’t be worse off if we try to hold on to our senses of humor when things get rough. It might even help us through.
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