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The Relationship Between Humor and Depression

How adaptive and maladaptive humor styles relate to depression.

People's experiences of humor vary, and humor serves many different functions in our daily lives. Sometime we use humor as a coping mechanism when things are not going well, and other times we enjoy a good laugh with our friends. Researchers use various scales to assess our experiences of humor, but by far the most common one is the Humor Styles Questionnaire. The scale, developed by Rod Martin and his students, is used to assess how people use humor in their daily life and has been used in hundreds of studies.

People are asked to rate how much they agree or disagree with various statements (e.g., "I enjoy making people laugh."). Their answers create a score on four humor styles. The styles are:

Affiliative Humor: Tendency to share humor with others, tell jokes and funny stories, make others laugh, use humour to facilitate relationships, put others at ease.

Self-Enhancing Humor: Tendency to maintain a humorous outlook on life even when not with others, use humor in coping with stress, cheer oneself up with humor.

Aggressive Humor: Tendency to use humor to disparage, put down, or manipulate others; use of ridicule, offensive humor; potentially use sexist and racist jokes.

Self-Defeating Humor: Tendency to amuse others at one’s own expense, self-disparaging humor; laughing along with others when being ridiculed or teased; using humor to hide one’s true feelings from self and others.

You can take the test for yourself and see how you score on each of the four humor styles.

A recent study looked at the relationship between these styles and depression. Depression is a serious mental illness that affects millions of people around the world. Scoring high on the two positive humor styles has been linked with various positive health outcomes, such as being happier and having healthier relationships. On the other hand, having high scores on the negative humor styles can have a negative effect on one's health.

The current study looked at the relationships between the four humor styles and depression. The researchers wanted to test whether people diagnosed with depression score high on the two negative humor styles, and low on the two positive styles. In addition, they looked at whether there is a genetic underpinning to the relationship between humor styles and depression.

Sad girl
Source: darksouls1/Pixaby

To do so, they recruited a sample of 1,154 Australian twins. Three hundred thirty-nine of them were identical, and 236 were non-identical. All were same-sex twins, with both male and female pairs represented. Of the whole sample, 145 individuals were diagnosed with depression. All twins completed the Humor Styles Questionnaire and in addition, answered three questions pertaining to depression. These questions were taken from different scales and are in line with items used to diagnose depressive disorder, though no official diagnosis was performed.

The results of the study showed first, that women were two and half times more likely than men to suffer from depression, a fact that has been found in other studies. Second, as predicted, people diagnosed with depression used self-defeating humor more than non-depressive people. In addition, depressive twins used the two positive humor styles (affiliative and self-enhancing) less then non-depressive twins, also as hypothesized. Contrary to the prediction, there were no differences in the use of aggressive humor among the depressive and non-depressive twins.

Next, the researchers looked at the possible genetic and environmental factors that may account for these correlations. Comparisons between identical and non-identical twins allow us to extract the relative contributions of genetic and environmental factors to a given trait or correlation by using behavioral genetics tools. Such analyses revealed that 26% of the differences in the depression scores were attributed to additive genetic factors, while 74% were due to non-shared environments (e.g., the twins being in different classrooms, having unique friends). Shared environments (e.g., raised by the same family) had 0% influence.

Other results showed that the positive correlation between the depression scale and self-defeating humor, and the negative correlation between the depression scale and self-enhancing humor, each have an underlying genetic factor influencing the correlations.

In sum, the study not only established that humor styles are correlated with depression, but also that at least some of these correlations are the result of some underpinning genetic influences (though not identifiable yet). The research also highlights the fact that humor is not always good for us, and in some cases might have severe negative effects.

Correlations, of course, do not imply causation, and it is unclear what they mean exactly. Do people suffering from depression choose to use more negative styles of humor and not try to improve their situation by using a more positive humor style? Or perhaps using a negative humor style is influencing depression? The third and likely possibility is that certain factors (both genetic and environmental) affect depression and the use of negative styles, but more research is needed on this topic.

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