Can You Increase Your Mental Health by Laughing at Yourself?

Does your perception of yourself affect your well-being? If so, how and why?

Posted Sep 29, 2018

You might assume that how you view yourself affects your mental health — now, and in the future. If you have a negative sense of your worth, low self-esteem, or a sense of victimhood, it can be hard to see your own role in that self-image; and how it's been shaped by early trauma or harmful life experiences. That can make it more difficult to build greater mental health and well-being. 

On the other hand, if you have a strong sense of your value and "presence" in the world, and strong self-confidence, those qualities are likely to show themselves with the internal strengths and the capacity for resilience you need in the face of difficulties or setbacks. But maybe not: If that sense of yourself is so fueled by narcissism and ego, you're more vulnerable to experiences that puncture your inflated view of yourself. And that undercuts your capacity for greater mental health; similar to the person with a diminished sense of self-worth.

But there's one important factor common to both of the above personalities. One factor, one capacity, is a hallmark of mental health, or at least of the potential for building greater health and well-being. I've seen it throughout my decades of psychotherapeutic work, and now some empirical research provides evidence of it. It's the capacity to laugh at yourself.

More specifically, it's the ability to see your foibles, your neurotic conflicts, your personality traits, and even your disturbed emotional attitudes, with an "outside" perspective, through which you can experience all of it as humorous. Then, you're able to see the humor in it all, and laugh at yourself as one participant in the ongoing "human comedy."

Clinically speaking, a good prognosis — the outlook for a positive, healthy resolution of conflicts — is found in a person’s capacity to laugh at oneself. That is, it's rooted in a perspective of seeing yourself and your emotional issues from the “outside.” Being able to laugh at your conflicts, distorted relationships, and personality traits from that enlarged perspective indicates a greater likelihood of  psychological growth and healthy development over time.

One new study that provides empirical evidence for much of what we see clinically is from the University of Grenada. The research finds, for example, that people who frequently use self-defeating humor — which often gains the approval of others through self-mockery; poking fun at oneself — show greater levels of psychological well-being. These findings contradict some previous research which suggested that self-defeating humor is exclusively associated with negative psychological effects among individuals who regularly engage in this form of humor. And that's incorrect.

According to one of the researchers, Jorge Torres Marín, “In particular, we have observed that a greater tendency to employ self-defeating humor is indicative of high scores in psychological well-being dimensions such as happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.” And that coincides with evidence from psychotherapy about enhancing mental health, overall.

The researchers indicated that some styles of humor are very adaptive – such as humor aimed at strengthening social relationships. Another type, self-enhancing humor, is marked by maintaining a humorous outlook in potentially stressful and adverse situations. These types of humor have consistently been linked to indicators of positive psychological well-being such as happiness, satisfaction with life, and a hopeful outlook. 

Some of that latter form of humor, however, may be linked to more negative states, such as depression and anxiety. But I think that is likely to reflect repressing one's awareness of very stressful situations, and using that type of humor to mask the adversity from oneself. That can erupt in symptoms of anxiety or depression later on. For the full research report, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, click here.

So, my recommendation is to practice getting "outside" of your life dilemmas and see the humor in them. That perspective will put them into a broader context of shared human experiences which, in turn, may expand and engage your capacity for growth and well-being in your life, going forward.