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:

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