Comedy is Emotional Medicine for the Hard Times in Life

Laughter helps us cope with negative emotions, new research says, and that's a — comedic — relief.


Last summer, I went through a messy, difficult breakup. After a week or so of crying and watching The Way We Were (and, inexplicably, The Mighty Ducks), I started writing jokes. Pretty soon I had enough material for a five-minute set, and I went around NYC on what I called "The Breakup Stand-Up Tour." While having a good support system helped heal the wounds, nothing felt as empowering as writing and performing jokes about this event. As it turns out, there is a scientific reason for that.

Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhbandner, of the University of Regensburg in Germany, recently tested how humor impacts negative emotion. Test subjects were shown pictures of disturbing images, followed by either a funny caption or a reassuring one. It turns out, people who saw the humorous captions felt less upset, and were able to look at the stimuli less negatively.

Being around people who are sharing a positive emotion is likely to foster a positive effect on our own emotions.

Kugler and Kuhbandner were initially concerned that humor might just be a distraction, where we momentarily forget our worries to have a laugh. But the participants could give detailed memories of the images they saw regardless of the accompanying caption. This means that humor is a powerful tool for self-soothing, one that uses our more developed brain to calm down the older, fear-centered parts like the amygdala. In psychology, it’s often called “reframing,” but any time we step back and readjust our view of a situation, we are disempowering the negativity bias. Humor is one of the most effective ways of doing this (for a great example of turning depression into comedic gold, check out the work of Chris Gethard).  

Take it from someone who knows — if you’re feeling a little down, allow yourself to laugh about it. It's funny how that helps.

As pointed out by David Robson in Research Digest, this study had the participants laughing alone, which is probably less effective than laughing in groups. Being around people who are sharing a positive emotion is likely to foster a positive effect on our own emotions. So while the study is certainly interesting and validates my own experience, there is probably even more to the humor/healing story that has yet to be told. Take it from someone who knows — if you’re feeling a little down, allow yourself to laugh about it. It's funny how that helps.

Dr. Ildiko Tabori, America's foremost therapist for comedians, explains the relationship between comedy and therapy:

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Why Elon Musk doesn't like Jeff Bezos's space colonies

Elon Musk took issue with recent ideas for space exploration from Jeff Bezos.

Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have sparred over space exploration previously.
  • Musk wants to focus on Mars while Bezos has the moon and space colonies as goals.
  • In a recent tweet, Musk called out Bezos's plans for space colonies as unrealistic.
Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.