Having a sense of humour means you're able to laugh at, or at least see the funny side of the absurdities of life. Our sense of humour develops quickly, within the first year of life. So whilst having a good sense of humour is sure to bring you a few more laughs, does it bring any other benefits, in particular to your health?
The medical community certainly believes humour is helpful, for example there was a Journal of Nursing Jocularity, and there exists an Association for Applied Therapeutic Humour. Their perspective on the importance of humour in health is backed up by science - studies have shown that humour helps boost the immune system in response to stress, and the physical act of laughing can increase our tolerance to pain.
When it comes to looking after your mental health, laughter is an effective self-care tool which helps lower stress hormones and boost the immune system. Although there are some questions over how exactly humour helps, it’s generally considered that there is a link between humour and good health.
So how does humour help? One idea is that it can help us to reframe situations in a more positive light, and in doing so gives us some choice and control in our responses. A study from Stanford University suggested that when dealing with horrifying images, people who made jokes about what they saw were better able to deal with them, having fewer negative emotions in response. A powerful example of such gallows humour comes from the trenches of World War I. “The Wipers Times” was a newspaper produced by the allied soldiers fighting on the front lines. It, and other similar newspapers became massively popular with those fighting in the trenches. The paper poked fun at those in authority on both sides, taking a satirical approach to the death and destruction all around, enabling soldiers to reframe the horrors of war into something more palatable.
Whilst humour can be used to cope with what life throws at us, we can also use it in relationship with others. It seems that humour works best when it is used to help us connect with people. What has been termed ‘affiliative’ humour helps build positive relationships with others, to break the ice or diffuse difficult situations. Stronger relationships with others provides another source of support and a buffer against isolation. Conversely self-deprecating or aggressive humour has been shown to increase isolation.
When it comes to those whose job is to make us laugh - comedians - many speak of the benefits of performing in front of others, being open about their problems on stage, or the catharsis of writing comedy. However there are also many examples of the funniest people suffering greatly with their mental health, the stories of famous comedians such as Robin Williams, Spike Milligan and Stephen Fry spring to mind. Why do people who make us laugh often appear to be so unhappy in real life?
Perhaps it’s because those who become comedians often mix a set of creative characteristics with impulsiveness and a difficulty in experiencing pleasure. On top of this, the lifestyle of your average comedian is a lonely and nomadic one, a life of late nights, many hours on the road, and little or no job security.
Some comedians say that comedy is like therapy, enabling them to express difficult aspects of their lives, to work through them and see the funny side of their problems. I strongly agree that comedians being open about their mental health can be helpful for society as a whole, reducing stigma and encouraging us to talk more about this important subject. But I worry that it’s not always therapeutic for comedians themselves. Within therapy you are not judged by your counsellor for what you bring, however comedians have to make the material entertaining or they’ll be booed off stage, or won’t be asked to perform again. The expression they seek comes at the cost of conditional acceptance - you can tell us about your problems, but only if you’re funny enough.
Having a sense of humour can help you feel more in control of how you respond to situations. It appears to have a number of health benefits, and is great for reducing stress. Whilst we’re not all cut out to be comedians, it seems there’s a real benefit in seeing the funny side of life.
Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton and Haywards Heath. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.