We've all heard it said that "laughter is the best medicine," but is this old adage just a myth? When does laughter -- or more specifically, humor-- help you reduce your life stress? The answer may sound like typical psycho-babble, but it's true: "It depends."
A recent study conducted in Norway suggested that a friendly sense of humor provides a life expectancy advantage for people under the age of 70, but that after that age, there is no statistical advantage to understanding humor and thinking in a humorous way. The conclusion of these researchers, that the age of 70 is some miraculous turning point in humor's life expectancy advantage, seems a bit over-reaching to me. Just because a statistical association vanishes, it doesn't mean that we should all abandon our sense of humor when we become a certain age.
What matters is the type of coping you use, not what age you are. In research that we reported at the 2010 American Psychological Association meeting in San Diego, grad student Gillian Freeman and William & Mary colleague Larry Ventis led a study on humor styles, aging, and stress. We found that certain types of humor work better for certain types of stress. And there's a gender twist as well. Read on...
It's a well-established fact that many older adults have figured out some of the secrets to successful coping. They're good ones to learn from if you're a younger or midlife adult and want some tips from the experts. As I've reported in an earlier posting, older adults are better able to regulate their emotions, they are more likely to see the positive in a situation, and they figure out how to maximize positive interactions compared to younger adults. Of course, as I've also pointed out before, it's the survivors we're studying. They've lived past some of the causes of stress and negative health outcomes that befall their less fortunate peers. Studies that ignore this fact are highly misleading, and I wouldn't want to fall into that trap. In fact, the Norwegian study of humor also makes that mistake.
The findings of this study do show that there are benefits to certain types of humor in certain situations. At William & Mary, Freeman and Ventis surveyed 265 retirees using the Humor Styles Questionnaire, a measure that assesses 4 humor coping styles. Let's take a look at those 4 styles:
1. Self-defeating humor. You let yourself be made fun of by other people and you use humor to put yourself down. You like it when others laugh about you.
2. Affiliative humor. You like to laugh and joke around with your friends and you like to be the one telling jokes. When you're with other people, you're witty and funny.
3. Aggressive humor. You use humor in an attacking way, such as teasing people when they make a mistake. You can't stop yourself from saying something funny even if the situation isn't appropriate.
4. Self-enhancing humor. Humor makes you feel better and that's how you use it. When you're depressed, you can cheer yourself up with humor. You can see what's funny even in situations that are highly stressful.
Just in reading these descriptions, you've probably already reached the conclusion that Self-enhancing humor would be the "best medicine." As it turned out, in this study, cheering yourself up only works when you're in a truly high stress situation. Stress was measured by asking participants to report their "hassles," the annoyances and frustrations that get in the way of our accomplishing our desired goals on a daily basis. You would score high on a hassles scale if, for instance, your email stopped working, you got stuck in traffic, a check bounced, and you lost your keys. People who can make light of bad situations seem to have better emotional well-being. But only when hassles were high. For people reporting low levels of daily stress, Self-enhancing humor didn't seem to provide any particular benefits.
But Self-enhancing humor isn't the only laughter medicine for high stress situations. For some-- namely the men in the sample-- Aggressive and Self-defeating humor proved to be adaptive when daily hassles were high. For women, humor in attack mode, whether toward yourself or others, had the opposite effect.
Gender stereotypes suggest that a self-effacing type of humor would be more consistent with the "feminine" role. In general, men are more likely to use Aggressive and Self-defeating humor, as Martin and his colleagues showed back in 2003. And the effects of men's humor styles seem to have practical consequences. In general, it's more difficult for women to pull off a comedy routine, whether they are popular entertainers or just ordinary folk. One interesting study of teaching style in college professors showed that students rated male, but not female, professors as more effective when they used humor in the classroom. The study, a recent dissertation conducted in Hong Kong (Guo-Hai, 2009), supports this notion that men can get away with more humor, especially the hostile variety. And of course you remember how much trouble Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton got into when she decided to laugh out loud during a television interview (she also got into trouble for crying...).
So laughter, or more specifically, humor is not a one size fits all coping mechanism, and it seems to vary not only by humor style but by gender. When they were stressed, the older men in the study made fun of themselves or other people and came out feeling better about the situation. Women who used the very same humor styles ended up feeling worse, not better. Is it because they're bucking social norms when they react to stress by attacking others (or themselves) and so are perceived more negatively? Think about it: How would you feel when your 77-year-old grandmother, when she's feeling pressured, takes a humorous jab at your foibles? Would it bother you more than when your grandfather launches into a George-Carlin style riff about everything that's wrong with you?
The hypothesis that gender roles are an important part of the humor-stress equation, is one that requires further research. For now, though, there are lessons you can learn from this study. If you're a man, go ahead and let your sarcasm flourish when life is handing you some tough times. If you're a woman, sarcasm will only make matters worse.
It's possible that for some reason the findings from older adults wouldn't apply to younger people, and so more research in this area is definitely required. For now, though, it's safe to say that regardless of your gender, your best bet is to use humor to cheer yourself up. Give yourself some inner chuckles. Your wisecracking approach will mean that you'll be less likely to get into trouble and more likely to cope successfully on those days that life throws some stress your way.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Guo-Hai, Chen (Porter Chan); Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 69(10-A), 2009. pp. 3855.
Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the humor styles questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1), 48-75.