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We have all likely seen it play out in our own lives: We are angry about something, then something funny happens, and suddenly, at least for a moment, we don't feel angry anymore. It's as though, somehow, the funny thing that happened gave us some much needed perspective on whatever we were angry about.

Such situations beg the question: Is there therapeutic value in humor?

There have been countless articles about the value of humor and laughter to psychological and physical health. While some of the conclusions may be exaggerated, there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that humor and laughter are important coping mechanisms at least when it comes to alleviating anger.

First, though, a little bit about what people find funny and why they laugh:

Humor is a particularly difficult concept to discuss and study for a variety of reasons: For one, there are substantial differences in what people find funny. Many types of humor (puns, dirty jokes, slapstick) are not appreciated by everyone, or even most people. And context matters greatly. The situation—who told the joke, the location, the circumstances—influences whether or not someone perceives something as funny. Something considered hilarious in one situation may not be funny at all in another.

In the end, what’s funny is hard to define, although one of the best definitions comes from author George Orwell, who wrote in his 1945 essay, "Funny, but Not Vulgar," that “a thing is funny when—in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening—it upsets the established order.” In psychological terms, people find something funny when it is surprises them and forces them to think about things in a new way—and when they perceive it as edgy or daring. However, once something moves past the threshold from edgy to “offensive or frightening," which varies from person to person, it is no longer funny.

What does all this mean for anger?

It means people can use humor to change their mood and think about things in a new light. By no means is this a new idea: Jerry Deffenbacher, one of psychology’s leading anger researchers, wrote of the importance of humor in a chapter of his 1995 book, Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Deffenbacher argued that using humor with clients might actually be considered a cognitive intervention, similar to cognitive restructuring in which clients evaluate the types of thoughts they have which might be leading them to experience more anger. He suggests that, as part of cognitive restructuring, clients should try to rethink things in silly or humorous ways. However, he is quick to point out that humor is not always the answer and that if people use it, they should make sure it is: silly rather than hostile or sarcastic; and not designed to laugh off problems but “to take a brief cognitive step backward, perhaps laughing at themselves and their cognitions, to reduce their anger and then approach the situation again.” (p. 169)

Why does humor work in reducing anger? There are actually a few simple reasons for the psychosocial benefits of humor:

  • Incompatible Mood States.
    Humor seems to decrease anger because, to some degree, the psychological state of finding something funny is incompatible with the psychological state of anger. In other words, it’s hard to be angry while, simultaneously, finding something funny. Even if just for a brief instant, when someone finds something funny and laughs, their anger dissipates somewhat. This is actually very similar to the rationale for why relaxation is so valuable in treating both anger and anxiety. One cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. It is also why humor has been found to be such an effective coping mechanism for so many negative psychological states (e.g., stress, fear, sadness). Of course, as described by Deffenbacher, certain types of humor like sarcasm are less valuable because they do not necessarily lead to a different mood state but rather serve as an aggressive means of expressing anger.
  • Conflict Management.
    Humor has long been used as a conflict management strategy. It lightens the mood, puts others at ease, facilitates communication of difficult and angering topics, and even helps with the delivery of bad news. In fact, people laugh more often at something they say than at something said by someone else. It is not so much that they find what they are saying to be funny; it is that laughter can convey the lightheartedness that might be necessary to decrease tension and anger in a particularly challenging interpersonal situation.
  • Cognitive Shifting.
    Finally, as described by both Deffenbacher and Orwell, humor represents a different way of looking at things. When people get angry, it’s because they perceive a situation as unfair, unjustified, etc. (See "Why We Get Mad.") Humor allows people to think about the provocation in a new light—potentially, one that's less angering. Likewise, it also allows the angry person to think of themselves and their angering thoughts in a new way. Highly emotional people sometimes think unreasonable or unrealistic things. Taking time to recognize the silliness of your recent thought that the person in the car in front of you is a total idiot or that not being able to find your car keys ruined the entire day can help give you some much needed perspective, and help you cope with frustrating situations.

About the Author

Ryan Martin Ph.D.

Ryan Martin, Ph.D. is an anger researcher and the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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