Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

Today's post continues our recent tradition of excellent guest blogging: James Telesford (the author of this particular guest post) is an advanced graduate student in the social-personality psychology program at UC-Berkeley. This is James' first post on the blog. Enjoy!

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
                                                                        -Kurt Vonnegut


Potentially life altering events such as the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, moving to a new city (or just across town, for that matter), or any other such experiences are major causes of stress. Recent research in social and personality psychology has demonstrated that we can adopt several strategies to help us decrease the negative emotions surrounding these events (Gross and Thompson, 2007). Among the most adaptive responses to stressors is cognitive reappraisal. In other words, one way to decrease the stress of a negative event is to think about it in a different way, in order to consciously change the event’s meaning, and thereby, lesson its emotional impact.

For instance, the religious among us may reinterpret the passing of a loved one as representing a transition to a better place and as being part of a higher power’s (i.e., God) grand plan. The less religious among us may view it as an opportunity for the loved one to no longer have to deal with the annoyances of daily life or to no longer suffer the pain and discomfort associated with an illness. Viewing events in these more positive ways makes us feel much better than if we simply focus on the negative aspects of the event.

Cognitive reappraisal stands in contrast to the less adaptive strategy of suppression, in which we fully experience negative emotions but do not display any behavioral signs. For instance, some of us try to show strength rather than crying when we are sad. Unfortunately, when using suppression, we are so focused on not showing any signs of our discomfort that it actually causes us more rather than less distress.

Can humor mend a broken heart? (source)
Recently, following the end of a long-term romantic relationship, family and friends seemingly expected me to be depressed and constantly in tears. “Aren’t you sad?,” “I’m so sorry,” “That sucks,” and “Aren’t you lonely?” were among the most frequent phrases and questions I heard from loved ones in the post-breakup months. It was probably extremely confusing to them when I would laugh a bit or smile and say, “it’s ok,”  “I’m fine,” or “I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” in response. Surely they assumed I was suppressing my sadness. Was I? How was I able to cope with my new found identity as a bachelor? Some of you may already be thinking reappraisal—a young, single man living in the Bay Area (one of the hippest and most beautiful areas in the country) sounds amazing. Further, it could be seen as a fun opportunity to search for someone who would appreciate me not just despite, but because of my flaws. True, but these reappraisals didn’t fully explain my mirthful attitude…

What about humor and laughing? Can it be used to regulate our emotions in responses to stress? Folk wisdom says laughter is the best medicine and that humor soothes the soul. Indeed, while looking for media to use for a research project, I came across the stand-up comedy of Richard Pryor (yes, this was for a scientific pursuit, I promise!). Infamous for his raunchy, ground-breaking routines about race relations and sex, it came as a pleasant surprise when I heard his take on romantic relationships and heartbreak. In fact, watching Pryor’s exaggerated imitation of a heartbroken man accidentally wandering into the street and getting hit by a bus made me laugh so hard that I immediately sought out other comedic routines about relationships (Louis C. K., Kevin Hart, and the late, great, Patrice O’Neal are highly recommended!).  Through a little introspection, I realized that I did still feel a little sad about the breakup, but I also felt much more positive than I had prior to watching these comedians. One question remained: why did I have these mixed emotions? Philosophers such as Plato have posited that humor involves a mixture of both pleasure and pain, but what does psychological research have to say about the topic?

McGraw and Warren (2010) have reported a set of studies that appear to agree with philosophers and lay theories. According to their benign violation hypothesis, 3 conditions are necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor. First, the humor must be seen as a violation (including apparent threats, violation of norms, or involve taboo content). Second, this violation must be seen as benign (through occurring in contexts that are perceived as safe, playful, or non-serious). Third, both of these appraisals must occur simultaneously.

In their studies, McGraw and Warren (2010) randomly assigned participants to either an experimental or a control condition. In the experimental condition, participants read several vignettes where people engaged in acts that could be interpreted as benign moral violations in which no harm is done (for example, a man rubs his bare genitals on his pet kitten and the kitten purrs and appears to enjoy the contact). In the control condition the moral violations cause harm (the contact causes the kitten discomfort). After reading each passage, participants reported on the emotions they were currently experiencing. Importantly, participants who read the experimental vignettes were significantly more likely to hold mixed emotions and be simultaneously disgusted and amused by the behavior compared to those who read the control vignettes. Those who read the control vignettes were only disgusted by the behavior. So, although humor doesn’t decrease negative emotions, it does increase and focus one on positive emotions.

The increase in positive emotions received after exposure to humor may bestow extra cognitive resources necessary to deal with any lingering negative emotions associated with life’s stressors. It may also provide a sense of belonging, which one may need following rejection (after all, laughter is more common in the presence of others and we have to have some shared knowledge in order to understand a joke). This may shed light on why the antics of Pryor, C.K., Hart, and O’Neal allowed me to overcome a difficult breakup. With their help, I was able to reappraise the situation, deal with any negative feelings, feel much more positive, and see that the end of a relationship is something that others have gone through and survived—I wasn’t alone! For me, laughter was indeed the best medicine.

Rather than only shedding tears and ruminating on our negative emotions, a more positive way to deal with stress may be to laugh and try to find humor in the situation—as Vonnegut argues, the emotional cleanup can be much easier if we do! 

James Telesford is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the social-personality psychology program at UC Berkeley. His broad research interests consist of 1) the effects of using racial humor on intergroup relations and 2) the impact of Black racial identity on several outcomes, including academic achievement and psychological well-being. 

Further Reading:
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of Emotion Regulation, (pp. 3-24). New York: Guilford Press.

McGraw AP, & Warren C (2010). Benign violations: making immoral behavior funny. Psychological science, 21 (8), 1141-9 PMID: 20587696


  1. Nice post! It's very helpful and enjoyable to read. :D

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