By Jessica Scarpati –
As comedy legend Mel Brooks once observed, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” While these days it seems the universe is especially keen to test this theory, studies show that maintaining the ability to laugh in the face of adversity is a stress-busting superpower worth developing for all seasons.
Swiss researchers recently found that people who laugh more often feel less stressed. In fact, laughing regularly creates a buffering effect that—like a protective bubble for the mind—grows stronger when laughter occurs closer to a stressful event.
But in an unexpected turn, scientists found that the intensity of laughter didn’t make as meaningful of a difference in coping skills. From chuckles to guffaws, frequency of laughter had a much bigger influence on how much a difficult event evoked the physical and emotional symptoms of stress.
Although the study involved a fairly small, narrow pool of participants—41 college students, more than three-quarters of whom were women—this link between laughter and resilience is no joke. For decades, experts have examined the complex role that laughter plays in how we process and manage stress.
“[Humor] doesn’t deny the negative experience, but helps to construe it as less threatening,” Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Dr. Kavita Khajuria writes in Psychiatric Times. “Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but prepares us to endure them through playfulness and a changed prism of perception of life’s challenges.”
Two psychology researchers tested this notion in a 1996 study that asked participants to watch and react to an otherwise dry, 13-minute film on industrial safety tips for wood mill operators. The video depicted reenactments of accidents that result from careless safety practices.
While the film played silently, participants were asked to narrate out loud what they saw. One group was instructed to describe what was happening in the movie in a serious manner. The other group was asked to come up with a humorous narrative, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style, and describe the events in an amusing light. After the film concluded, researchers asked participants about their mood and measured indications of bodily stress, such as heart rate and skin temperature.
In the end, those in the serious group rated themselves as significantly more stressed than the jokesters. In another example of humor’s buffering ability, researchers found that members of the funny group also bounced back from witnessing the film’s stressful events more quickly.
A similar 2011 study from Stanford University asked people to view a series of disturbing images—including photos of car accidents, aggressive animals and dental exams—and then reinterpret the scenes by making jokes about them. Like other studies, those who explored their silly side reported feeling less stressed after looking at the photos.
“If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in well-being,” said Andrea Samson, one of the researchers who led the study.
In a surprising twist, however, researchers found that not all humor was created equal. People who used upbeat, non-hostile jokes (such as “He always wanted to work with animals,” in response to an image of a man gutting a fish) reported feeling better than people who opted for more cynical, disparaging humor (“An ideal workplace for people with body odor”).
Just as timing and perspective are the key elements of any good joke, experts maintain that humor’s role in resilience is similarly nuanced.
“Whether you have a bad day or experience a catastrophic life event, there’s a pretty thin line between tragedy and comedy,” organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich writes in Huffpost. “I’m not saying you should start creepily chuckling whenever life gets tough and ignore the tragedy completely—but the balance you choose can be the difference between victory and defeat.”