Delete That COVID-19 Joke or Forward It?

Understanding how different types of humor impact our resilience in a pandemic.

Posted May 01, 2020

Photo by Marcela Rogante on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Marcela Rogante on Unsplash

By Ami Hileman

When I picked up my phone this morning, I found three memes and a “quarantine soundtrack” video, all courtesy of some good friends wanting to share a laugh. While it would be easy to chuckle and shrug this off as a silly way to pass the time in isolation, there is actually something deeper going on here. The humor circulating in emails and on social media feeds may be serving to protect us from long term traumatic effects of the fear and anxiety accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disaster psychologists have studied the theme of personal resilience, which is a person’s ability to bounce back and recover after adversity. Research shows that humor ranks alongside social support, optimism, faith, and several other qualities as powerful factors in cultivating personal resilience.

Is All Humor Beneficial?

It may come as no surprise that humor is a powerful force for well-being. After all, “laughter is the best medicine,” as the saying goes. However, not all styles of humor are equally effective in improving personal resilience.

Humor can be broken down into four styles. Affiliative humor is the style used to amuse others and strengthen social connections, typically involving playful storytelling. Self-enhancing humor refers to a humorous outlook on life used by individuals as a coping mechanism under stress. Aggressive humor is the type of humor that makes fun of others, targeting an individual or group. Self- defeating humor is used to amuse others at our own expense, by pointing out a weakness or failure in ourselves. Affiliative and self-enhancing humor are considered positive types of humor, while aggressive and self-defeating are considered negative humor styles.

A recent study at the University of Oviedo in Spain dove deeper into these differences. Researchers asked 804 participants to complete three questionnaires which determined their humor styles, level of anxiety and depression, and tendency toward optimism. Their findings confirmed that the two positive styles of humor can be protective factors against anxiety and depression.

“An optimist will be a much more habitual user of positive humor than negative and... will be particularly protected against anxiety and depression.” (Menéndez-Aller et al., 2019).

The negative styles of humor were found to have an opposite effect, but of the two types, self- defeating humor had a much stronger correlation to anxiety and depression. Aggressive humor could have positive or negative impacts, with potential differentiation between men and women and between cultures.

How Do We Get the Most From Humor?

This study confirms that age-old adage. Laughter is indeed good for the soul—if it’s the right kind of laughter. We aren’t stuck with just one style of jokes.

“One may envisage how training in a different use of humor may be beneficial.” (Menéndez-Aller et al., 2019).

By becoming mindful of the different humor styles and choosing positive forms of humor, we can reduce anxiety and promote personal resilience. The next time you forward a meme, you might be sharing more than a laugh; you could be helping your friends bounce back after COVID-19.

Ami Hileman is a graduate student in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College (IL). Her background includes over 15 years of business leadership and several years leading international service teams.

References

Menéndez-Aller, Á., Postigo, Á., Montes-Álvarez, P., González-Primo, F. J., & García-Cueto, E. (2020). Humor as a protective factor against anxiety and depression. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 20(1), 38–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2019.12.002