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: