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How Laughing at Yourself Can Be Good for Your Well-Being

It promotes mental health, better relationships, and a clearer perspective.

Key points

  • Laughing at oneself is healthy when it is not motivated by self-demeaning drives.
  • People who engage in excessive self-defeating humor may be trying to hide underlying emotional problems.
  • Self-directed laughter can remind us of our humanness and promote positive interpersonal interactions.

Laughing when people say humorous comments or do funny things is one issue but laughing at oneself is another. Most people enjoy laughing, partly because it releases endorphins that may not only ease tension and pain, but makes people feel good. Some believe that people cannot have a sense of humor if they cannot laugh at themselves. Psychologists use the term “self-directed laughter” to describe laughing at oneself. In the early period of studying self-directed laughter, Allport (1961) identified the ability to laugh at oneself as having insight while still having a sense of self-acceptance. In other words, laughing at oneself is healthy when it is not motivated by self-demeaning drives. McGhee (1996, 2010) viewed laughing at oneself as healthy when you:

  • Are able to look kindly at your weaknesses or mistakes
  • See how embarrassing situations can be funny
  • Can laugh without putting yourself down

It is important, however, to distinguish how laughter directed at oneself can cut both ways—increasing self-acceptance or self-disparagement. Sometimes self-directed humor is based on belittling or negative comments about oneself. For example, professional comedians who do so for monetary gain or publicity. Apart from comedians, others who find humor in their own shortcomings or behavior may do so for a number of reasons:

  • Helping one maintain positive mental health, particularly during stressful times or when feeling tension
  • Reducing the “sting” of a critical remark by another
  • Aiding oneself in gaining a clearer perspective of what is and is not important
  • Enhancing interpersonal relationships with others by breaking down barriers and making people realize each other’s similarities and thus building rapport

Conversely, some forms of self-directed laughter can have negative effects for the individual, which is often called self-deprecating or self-defeating humor. Individuals who are not comfortable in social interactions may use self-directed laughter to achieve or maintain interpersonal connections with the hope of getting the approval of others. Kuiper and McHale (2009) view this in terms of well-being. However, such behavior can backfire. People who engage in excessive self-defeating humor may be trying to hide or avoid dealing with underlying emotional problems, such as low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Although a person may engage in cynical or self-defeating humor to attract others or gain their approval, studies found that just the opposite occurred—people were less likely to want to interact with the individual. Consequently, self-defeating humor not only discourages fostering relationships but also contributes to further impairing an individual’s well-being resulting in greater social rejection and lower levels of self-esteem (Kuiper & McHale).

Other interesting findings are that self-directed laughter may be gender-related. That is, women may be more likely to express this form of humor when in the company of other women, but seldom with men; whereas men would so with women, but rarely with other men (Lampert & Ervin-Tripp, 1989).

If one’s goal is to improve their relationships with others, disclosing funny things or weaknesses about oneself can reduce tension and anxiety for the speaker and the listener. It not only makes others feel comfortable because the person is self-accepting, but the humor is not hurtful or derisive. Clearly, the speaker should feel comfortable about who they are in so far as their self-esteem and capabilities and should not be experiencing emotional difficulties.

There is always the concern that by disclosing shortcomings, one may appear “less than” the image they want to project to others and fear that they will lose respect. Yet, those who have a need to appear faultless or do not have the ability to honesty recognize their vulnerabilities or limitations run the risk of failing to establish a realistic portrayal of themselves and the development of meaningful and genuine interpersonal relationships.

Matwick and Matwick (2017) argue that for celebrities, self-directed laughter can be used as a vehicle to make the person more “ordinary” or relatable to their audience. Humorous self-disclosures can result in familiarity and accessibility. For example, the author J. K. Rowling was the commencement speaker at Harvard University on June 5, 2008. She began her address to the audience by saying, "The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!" (Harvard Gazette, 2008)

All of us, whether we are famous, accomplished, intimidating, or just the “average Joe or Jane,” can use self-directed laughter. If we have good ego strength, finding humor in who we are or what we do not only reminds us of our humanness, but also promotes positive interpersonal interactions and relationships. It’s good for our well-being.

References

Allport, Gordon W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Harvard Gazette. (2008, June 5). Text of J. K. Rowling’s speech. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/06/text-of-j-k-rowling-spee…

Kuiper, N. A. & McHale, N. (2009). Humor styles as mediators between self-evaluative standards and psychological well-being. The Journal of Psychology, 143(4), 359–376 DOI:10.3200/JRLP.143.4.359-376

Lampert, M. D. & S. M. Ervin-Tripp. (1989). The interaction of gender and culture on humor production. Symposium conducted at the 97th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. New Orleans, LA

Matwick, K. & Matwick, K. (2017). Self-deprecatory humor on TV cooking shows. Language & Communication, 56, 33–41. doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2017.04.005

McGhee, P. E. (1996). Health, healing, and the amuse system: Humor as survival training. (2nd ed.). Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

McGhee, P. E. (2010). Humor as survival training for a stressed-out world: The 7 humor habits program. AuthorHouse.

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