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What Are 5 Overlooked Downsides of Humor?

More than most people realize, humor’s effects might be predominantly negative.

Key points

  • Unprincipled people can use—or, rather, abuse—humor to put down or make fun of minority groups.
  • In laughing off their fallible behaviors, manipulators can trick others into accepting their lame excuses.
  • Carried too far, self-mockery—a form of personally belittling humor—can compromise how others regard someone.
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A not-so-amusing mime
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More than most people realize, humor is a mixed bag. By now, its advantages have been well covered, and, though less so, academics investigating it have also identified its more problematic aspects.

The Bright Sides of Well-Intended Humor

Before focusing on humor’s negative features, to be fair, it only makes sense to outline ways in which it can be valuable—at times, invaluable.

1. The social, affiliative advantages of humor are striking.

Adeptly employing witticisms can strengthen and solidify relationships. In fact, there are few things more spontaneous and enjoyable than laughing with friends. And most people covet the ability to make friends laugh.

It’s not a coincidence that “funny” is intimately connected to the word “fun.” And when people get together not for business but, well, “just for fun,” you can bet that, however unconsciously, they’ll attempt to inject as many quips and drollery into the conversation as possible.

Doubtless, humor is entertaining and puts people at ease.

2. Humor is frequently alluded to as a form of self-soothing or cheering yourself up.

When things don’t go as planned, when you’re faced with unwelcome mishaps, or when you’re beginning to palpably stress out, humor can help you make peace with the negative experiences we’re all subject to.

Consequently, it can be a most efficacious coping mechanism. If you cultivate an ironically detached frame of mind in assessing human existence—as, uncontrollably, bordering on the absurd—then what is likely to upset others can impress you as rather ludicrous.

As Horace Walpole famously noted: “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy for those who think.”

3. Researchers have repeatedly verified the benefits of adopting a (quasi-)humorous stance toward illness and disease.

At the least, it lowers a person’s anxiety and depression—which, when left alone, only make physical maladies progress that much faster. Compare this to simply shrugging one’s shoulders and (after getting over the initial shock) uttering with a wry grin, “Oh, well, there go my fantasies about personal immortality; here’s one more thing I’ll just have to adapt to”—vs. a mortified, “Oh, God! Now what am I going to do?!”

What’s key in recovering from a major illness, if that’s possible, is to strengthen your immune system, get some pain relief, and establish a more positive attitude. Or, if your disease is incurable, face your mortality with courage. And the benefits of doing so relate not only to physical ailments and complaints but to mental and emotional challenges as well.

The Darker Downsides of Humor

While, more often than not, humor is personally and socially advantageous, unfortunately, it can also be attacking, anti-social, and self-sabotaging.

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"The joke's on you!"
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1. Humor can be a form of aggressing against another, and so hurt them and damage your relationship with them.

Someone can tease, disparage, insult you—or downright ridicule you—yet, at the same time, whimsically (really, sarcastically) smile at you. Worse, they might actually laugh at you, which, sometime in your life, you’ve likely both observed and experienced.

Such painfully frustrating or disturbing situations are, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, outright humiliating.

Because we all have a dark side, you might ask yourself whether you have ever been such a perpetrator. Might you have indulged (though, hopefully, not beyond adolescence) in putting someone down so you could, defensively, experience yourself above them?

2. Humor can be offensive and prejudicial.

Besides personally putting you down, unprincipled people can use (or rather abuse) humor to make fun of minority populations. Their brazen wisecracks can be racial—ill-mannered maneuvers to mock African Americans, Asians, Latinos, or immigrants generally.

Or they might scornfully denigrate LGBTQ individuals as perverts. Or hatefully bad-mouth an entire gender, reflecting misogyny or misandry.

Regrettably, this tendency represents humor at its most abrasively biased, characterized by a tone and facial expression of sneering, contempt, or disgust. Severe narcissistic personalities, always looking for a scapegoat to deride as inferior to them, are especially given to using caustic humor to ridicule those most vulnerable to being judged maliciously.

Free speech or not, such humor has to be recognized for what it is: narrow-minded, distorted, and cruel. Stereotyping others may feel humorous to the one doing it, but it’s anything but to others with even a modicum of compassion.

It reminds me of what an exceptionally kind, caring friend once shared with me, and I’ll quote her because it’s a good example of humor’s mirroring impartiality:

"I’m totally without prejudice . . . No, wait! I take that back—I’m prejudiced against people that are prejudiced."

3. Coldheartedly manipulating people to laugh.

Stand-up comedians do this all the time. By (comically) exaggerating, say, the female-like movements of some gay men as they effeminately prance around the stage, they can get people to laugh and set them up for further mocking derisions, not just of gay or lesbian persons but of other minorities, too.

To get the laughter their applause depends on, they’re all too ready to play on any (ordinarily suppressed) biases in their audience.

Curiously, the word gag has two usually disparate meanings. As a verb, it’s about prying open a person’s mouth to keep them from crying out; as a noun, it’s simply calculated to arouse laughter. Yet both involve manipulation, designed to get others to react in a manner they wouldn’t naturally (or willingly) allow themselves to—like laughing indiscriminately at mothers-in-law or people with autism, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s.

I discovered a cartoon perfectly illustrating how we can accept as entertaining something that, if we actually witnessed, would appall us. Labeled “dog math,” it depicts an adult dog teaching a child dog mathematics by presenting this problem:

“If I have three bones, and Mr. Jones takes away two, how many fingers will he have left?” [!]

4. Abdicating responsibility for your mistakes and misdeeds by laughing them off—and cueing others to laugh at them as well.

We all mess up at times. That’s only human, understandable, and deserving of empathy and forgiveness. But in laughing at their wrongdoings, irresponsible manipulators strive to trick others into condoning them by honoring their (usually lame) excuses.

In effect, they don’t want to feel required to apologize or promise to do better in the future.

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Trying to influence a bear market
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5. Making fun of yourself.

Self-mockery, which Woody Allen made an art form of (as in, “Bisexuality immediately doubles my chances for a date Saturday night”), exemplifies humor that doesn’t involve belittling another but oneself.

Nonetheless, such humor can become self-defeating. Excessive self-denigration can prompt others to see you as “less than” since, after all, isn’t that what you’re regularly proclaiming?

It’s as though you’re driven to poke fun at yourself to lessen the chances that someone else will beat you to it. And this behavior can inadvertently suggest that you’re not really worth others' time or energy.

Carried too far, entertaining others at your own expense can be viewed as a form of self-abuse. If you habitually laugh with others when they’re teasing or taunting you, you can come across as a dolt, fool, or goon—hardly an image of yourself you’d want to be fostering in others.

Related to this, researchers have found that self-disparaging humor is correlated with depression and anxiety. So utilizing such humor is literally bad for your mental health and, less directly, your physical health as well.

It’s far better to deal with your feelings directly or hire a therapist to help you cope with them than to conceal your emotions through (counter-intuitively) displaying them humorously.

To conclude on a more somber note:

While humor may be essentially about making light of things—as in Oscar Wilde’s paradoxically witty reflection, “Life is much too important ever to be taken seriously”—there are issues that to be handled well should be taken seriously.

That includes such commonly distressful things as pain and terminal disease, man-made and natural disasters, betrayal, viciousness, abandonment, divorce, and death (whew!).

To pretend these actualities aren’t serious matters is self-deluding. And what is masked, denied, or suppressed from consciousness will remain unresolved.

Inevitably, such irresolution will lead to personal and interpersonal quagmires later in life. And who would choose that?

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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