Researchers say humor is a powerful tool against depression

They say laughter is the best medicine; you might not be able to laugh a broken leg away, but it might help your depression.

  • A new study examined 55 individuals recovering from major depression to see how well humor worked as a coping mechanism against stress.
  • Individuals at risk for depression often fall into depressive episodes because of faulty coping mechanisms.
  • Research indicates that humor works as a powerful defense against depression.

In 1894, Mark Twain had good reason to feel depressed. He owed $100,000 due to some poor investments, the equivalent of about $2.9 million today. To get out from under this debt, Twain did what he did best; he wrote a book called Traveling the Equator, a non-fiction account of his travels in the British Empire. In it, he noted, "The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."

Whether humor's source is sorrow is still up for debate; however, more than a hundred years later, researchers have found that it is at least a powerful tool to combat sorrow. The research, published in Brain and Behavior, found that humor serves as an exceptionally effective mechanism to cope with depression.

Comedy as emotional defense

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Prior research had shown that when an individual at risk for depression is exposed to stress, they fail to use the coping strategies that prevent most folks from falling into depressive episodes. Once their first depressive episode takes hold, it takes less and less stress to trigger subsequent episodes, a kind of depressive downward spiral. So, it stands to reason that teaching depression-prone individuals how to cope with negative life events is an excellent way to prevent further episodes of depression.

Study author Anna Braniecka explained the motivation for their study to PsyPost: "The use of adaptive emotion regulation strategies in people at risk of depression should boost their resilience against depressogenic experiences, however, there is still not enough scientific knowledge to determine which strategies are particularly beneficial in this respect. We decided to fill this gap by investigating one of the most promising, and at the same time the least studied strategy—humor."

The authors examined 55 patients who had been diagnosed with major depression but were in remittance; that is, patients who had been depressed but were diagnosed as healthy at the time of the study. They showed their 55-person sample a series of images designed to elicit a negative reaction, like scenes of war, violence, sick people, etc., and asked the participants to rate their reaction to them. Then, the participants were shown more images from the set, but this time they were asked to respond to them in one of three ways: either neutrally describing the scene, reframing it in a positive way, or making some kind of joke about it.

Promising results

Unsurprisingly, the participants felt less negatively after they had reframed the scene either through positivity or humor. The participants were also asked about how difficult it was to reframe the scene, how funny or positive they thought their reframing was, and how distant they felt from the scene. Depressed people often fail to distance themselves from negative stimuli; in a sense, they immerse themselves in the negative event too much. The researchers found that humor and positive reframing boosted their sense of distance from negative stimuli, a capability that is associated with preventing depressive relapses.

What's more, although the participants reported that it was more difficult to reframe the scene with humor than it was with positivity, the effect for each was just about as strong, there was no negative impact when a participant tried to make a joke but couldn't pull it off. This is significant, since depressed people are particularly susceptible to "defeat stress," or the stress associated with failure.

Together, the results show that humor is an important arrow in people's quivers when combating depression. Braniecka explained that "humor could broaden depressed individuals' repertoire of adaptive tools of dealing with potentially depressogenic experiences, and in the long run, enhance their resilience."

While the results suggest that humor can be a powerful method for depressed individuals to bolster their emotional resilience, it's important to remember that this is preliminary work. The study didn't examine healthy people, so its hard to say whether the use of humor is an effective strategy for everybody, although the results do seem to suggest that it would be. In addition, the study didn't look at all kinds of humor. Humor can be positive, like laughing at adversity, or negative, like mocking others—how different kinds of humor promote or discourage healthy emotional regulation isn't clear. Despite this hedging, though, the study shows that the next time life feels like it's spiraling out of your control, at the very least, it won't hurt to make a joke.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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