They say that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Is this true? Does the ability to see the funny side of things really act like a psychological shield against stress? A series of new studies in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin provides some tentative support for the idea. But the research also illustrates why this is such a difficult topic to study – does humour really reduce stress or is it just easier to see the funny side when you are coping well? And it’s worth remembering the serious risk that if humour is shown to be protective by psychology research – and it’s a big if – that those who suffer most from stress will be put under social pressure to help themselves by cheering up, a situation only likely to intensify their distress.
Heidi Fritz at Clarkson University and her colleagues began by conducting a diary study with 21 women and 1 man diagnosed with the chronic pain condition Fibromyalgia Syndrome. The participants first completed baseline questionnaires about their physical health, psychological state, their tendency to see the funny side of things (for example, they were asked whether they would typically experience mirth in situations such as a waiter spilling a drink over them), how much socialising and support they’d had with friends and relatives recently, and how much they tended to reappraise challenges, such as looking for the positives in a difficult situation. Then the participants spent the next four days completing diary entries several times each day about their physical and emotional state.
The more pronounced the participants’ sense of humour, the lower their psychological distress at the start of the study and the better their physical symptoms through the diary stage. But against the researchers’ expectations, the apparent benefits of humour weren’t explained by sense of humour being linked with a tendency to reappraise situations, nor to better social relations.
A second study involved just over 100 undergrad students answering questions about their psychological and emotional state, their tendency to find things funny and make jokes, and they also recalled a previous distressing event and how much it continued to affect them.
Overall, the more that the students said the past trauma continued to affect them, the higher they scored for signs of psychological distress. But crucially this wasn’t the case for the students who were most inclined to humour and seeing the funny side of things – they said the trauma was still affecting their lives, but based on their emotional scores, they weren’t experiencing heightened distress.
The obvious problem with these first two studies is that it might simply be that the less distressed participants were better able to experience humour, rather than their inclination for humour reducing their stress levels or, in the case of the first study, their physical symptoms.
A final study attempted to overcome this methodological problem and involved students affected by the September 11 terror attacks in New York. The students completed baseline psychological measures one month after the attacks, including scoring their disposition for humour (and their humour style), and then two months later, they answered more questions about their levels of psychological distress.
The researchers said there was a tendency for self-enhancing humour (taking a cheerful perspective on life) to be associated with reduced stress over time – though direct evidence for this did not reach statistical significance in their analysis – and that this was related to a greater inclination to reappraise situations – finding the positives where possible. In contrast, self-defeating humour (disparaging oneself) was associated with more distress and less reappraisal.
Fritz and her colleagues said a consistent pattern had emerged from their studies: “positive humour use predicted reduced psychological distress in response to stressful events”. However, the evidence for this conclusion seems weak: only the final study had the longitudinal methodology needed to identify a potential causal role for humour in reducing distress, and in fact it failed, statistically, to establish that a stronger inclination for humour at baseline was directly associated with less distress at follow-up (and even if it had, it’s still possible that another unknown variable(s) – such as personality – was the true causal factor behind more humour and less distress. Stronger evidence for humour’s stress-busting benefit would require an experiment that manipulated people’s sense of humour and looked at the effects on stress – clearly a tricky thing to do).
“Given the persistent lay belief in the physical health benefits of humour use, it is critical that we understand the magnitude of its effect,” the researchers concluded. Far more robust research is needed before we reach that point.
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