Humor can be a great mechanism for dealing with stress. Jokes and witty conversation can make you feel closer to the people around you. In addition, a key element of jokes is that they force you to look at the same situation in different ways. Puns, for example, involve taking a word or phrase and recognizing that it can have two distinct meanings. This process of looking at situations in more than one way can also be applied to stressful situations themselves. Reappraising a difficult situation involves recognizing that it may have a hidden benefit or may not be as bad as it first appeared.
Not all humor may help with stress. For example, people may use humor to insult or belittle others in ways that may actually decrease social support from others. Or people may make jokes at their own expense, which might actually make people feel worse about themselves when times are tough.
The influence of humor on stress was explored in some detail in a paper in the June, 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Heidi Fritz, Leslie Russek, and Melissa Dillon.
One study just looked at the overall influence of humor on stress. This study examined 21 patients suffering from the chronic pain disorder Fibromyalgia. These patients experience a lot of physical discomfort, and also have difficulty sleeping.
These patients filled out a mood scale and scales measuring their mental and physical functioning on a daily basis for four days. This diary included a measure of their psychological distress (measured as the presence of anxiety, depression, and anger and the absence of calm and well-being). They also filled out a scale measuring their use of humor. This study found that the tendency to use humor (overall) was associated with lower levels of psychological distress.
Two other studies looked at this more carefully. One study focused on having undergraduates reflect on a difficult experience they had during the previous three years. A second study begin in October, 2001, and tracked people for three months measuring their stress related to the 9/11 attacks.
Each of these studies measured levels of psychological distress. The three-month study allowed the researchers to compare stress levels at the start and end of the study. The studies also looked at overall use of humor as well as the use of particular potentially positive and negative styles of humor. These studies also assessed whether people felt like they had a lot of social support and whether they engaged in strategies to reappraise difficult situations.
Both studies found that overall use of humor tends to decrease stress. Positive forms of humor like telling jokes and using jokes to make people feel better about themselves was related to feelings of social support, which decreased stress. Self-defeating humor (in which people make jokes at their own expense) tended to increase stress and was associated with lower levels of social support.
Finally, in the three-month study, the decrease in stress associated with humor from the first measurement in October to the second one in January was associated with the tendency to reappraise situations. That is, people who used humor a lot were more likely to find new ways to think about the stressful situation, which was related to decreases in stress. In this study, people who used self-defeating humor showed a tendency to reappraise less often, leading to higher levels of stress.
This study suggests that humor can benefit people experiencing stress, but only if it is used in the right way. Humor has two benefits. Being witty and telling enhancing jokes increases people’s social support, which helps people feel better in difficult times. In addition, the use of positive forms of humor can help people to think about stressful situations in new ways.
However, negative forms of humor—particularly jokes that people make at their own expense—can backfire. These jokes can decrease social support and can make it harder for people to reappraise situations. Ultimately, these jokes may lead to higher levels of stress.
Of course, these results need to be treated with some care. It may be that the kinds of people who make themselves the butt of their own jokes are also people who have difficulty gaining social support from others and have trouble seeing situations in new ways. Studies still need to be done to determine whether humor causes these observed differences or is a result of psychological differences that make people better or worse at dealing with stress.
Fritz, H.L., Russek, L.N., & Dillon, M.M. (2017). Humor use moderates the relation of stressful life events with psychological distress. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 845-859.