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The 4 Types of Humor

Humor and stress are two sides of the same coin.

Key points

  • While humor offers many benefits, not all types are beneficial for us.
  • Certain kinds of humor can improve a person's health and well-being.
  • Simple activities can generate more awareness of humor in life.

Prince Harry mentioned in his book that he watched Friends on a loop during the darkest times in his life. It became his go-to program as he navigated through his lonely life and post-traumatic stress disorder. The characters on Friends are excellent companions as we watch them rapturing and repairing their relationships, coping with worries, and, most importantly, finding humor amid challenging daily hassles.

Humor is one of the coping strategies we use to reframe what is sad, desperate, and unbearable in our lives into hope and optimism that keeps us going. It comes in different forms. It can be an ability to amuse others, the tendency to laugh and make jokes, having a humorous temperament, enjoying funny things in life, or having a humorous view of the world. However, not all humor is good for us.

Two of the four types of humor are very useful, whereas the other two can make us feel worse. Affiliative humor makes other people laugh, and brings people together. For example, any jokes about the COVID pandemic that highlighted the ridiculousness of the situation we all found ourselves in brought us closer together as we laughed and forwarded humorous posts. When sharing funny situations which many people could relate to, we created a mutual understanding and empathy that highlighted the ridiculousness when we found ourselves trying to survive the restrictions.

Self-enhancing humor is a coping strategy we use when we face adversity or stress. This type of humor is about finding amusement in the challenging situations we experience. It is seeing the funny side of our suffering and having the guts to laugh about it. It is a different type of humor from self-deprecating humor, associated with ridiculing ourselves and speaking ill of our abilities, behaviors, and attitudes. While displaying self-enhancing humor is associated with higher levels of well-being, the jury’s out on self-deprecating humor.

In some cases, self-deprecating humor can be good for us. Say we find ourselves in situations where other people find us intimidating; they feel uncomfortable and out of place. In these circumstances, saying something self-deprecating, such as: “Oh, I always get jittery in situations like this,” or “I’m no good in social situations,” can bring us closer to other people experiencing similar thoughts and feelings. Thus, displaying this type of humor can be helpful in building alliances and feeling closer to others. But, at the same time, when it's overused or when we start to believe the self-deprecating things we say, it may adversely affect our health and well-being. Thus, we need to be cautious when using it.

Researchers believe that any form of aggressive humor that includes sarcasm and manipulation of others is bad for the objects of the humorous remarks and the speakers themselves. It is associated with a range of adverse outcomes in relation to health and well-being and should be avoided. (Even though some of this type of humor is present in Friends, the consequences of it are often portrayed as detrimental for whoever exercised it.)

Apart from these four types of humor, many studies encourage reflecting on humor to boost our well-being. It is a mixture of using humor as a coping strategy and becoming aware of the humorous situations that will prompt us to experience more humor in life. Here are a few examples from my book Positive Health: 100+ Positive Psychology and Lifestyle Medicine Tools to Enhance Your Well-Being.

Tool 1 (adapted from Gander et al., 2013): Over the next week, set aside 15 minutes every evening and write down the three funniest things that happened to you during the day. Then reflect on why those things happened and describe how they made you feel.

Tool 2 (adapted from Wellenzohn et al., 2016): Every day over the next week, set aside 10 minutes and count any funny things you experienced during the day. Then reflect on the reasons those things happened to you.

Tool 3 (Wellenzohn et al., 2016): Whenever you experience a stressful situation, reflect afterward on how it was and how you could have resolved it humorously.

Tool 4 (Mota Sousa et al., 2019): Over the next few weeks, watch your favorite comedy show on TV three or four times a week.

Like many people practicing these humor-enhancing activities, you may experience less stress, more enjoyment in life, and start viewing it as more meaningful. In addition, if you have depression, your symptoms may ease as you progress with these activities. Some studies assessing the physiological impact of practicing humor show that affiliative humor is associated with wound healing by releasing oxytocin, a bonding hormone. Also, it is very effective for patients on hemodialysis or in palliative care whose symptoms eased with more humor in their lives. However, as always, it is essential to highlight that not all activities are for everyone, and even humor must be exercised cautiously.

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