Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Humour and emotion

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Humour and emotion:
The benefits of having a good sense of humour

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you heard that “laughing makes you live longer”? Some psychologists believe that this could in fact be true. The only problem with this however is that humour is so difficult to measure. Naturalistic observation or experimental designs cannot really tell us a whole lot about humour. All we can really know for sure is that laughing and humour makes us, in general, feel good. But why does it make us feel good? There are many opinions that have been constructed over the years as to why this is, however there is no right or wrong answer. The aim of this chapter is to explore some of these opinions in a way that can help to better understand the link between humour and emotion. Emotion in itself can be a complicated concept to grasp, but hopefully this will provide some insight with regards to how humour can regulate emotion and it’s effects on emotion. Research cases will be presented to help apply some of the knowledge presented in this chapter, as well as some theoretical examples to provide readers with a basic understanding of the concepts that are used in the studies.

What is emotion?[edit | edit source]

In order to understand the effects humour has on emotion, it is important to have somewhat of an idea as to what emotion is. Although there is no one solid definition of what emotion is, for the purpose of this chapter we will consider emotion as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements, by which the individual attempts to deal with a personal significant matter or event” (American Psychological Association, 2007). For the purpose of this chapter we will be exploring mostly how humour helps to trigger positive emotion, like happiness and hope.

What is humour?[edit | edit source]

According to Martin because humans are the only organisms on the planet who have capability to laugh, it is of an emotionally healthy person who laughs (2007). Martin also states that many metal health specialists believe that those who lack a sense of humour may indicate depression or other emotional conflicts (2007). So if human beings are the only organisms that can laugh, resulting in humour and enjoyment, there must be a purpose to humour and it’s role in our day-to-day lives. Like emotion there is no simply definition as to what humour is. Considering a sense of humour can be different from one individual to the next, the definition of humour can also be very broad.

Why we like to laugh?[edit | edit source]

Remember when you were a kid going through a rough time, or having a bad day? What did your parents of friends do to make you feel better? It wouldn’t be surprising that most people say something along the lines of “telling a joke”, “tickling” or try to make you smile in some way or another. Laughing and joking can help to create social bonds with others, captivate an audience during a presentation, but most important laughing and smiling can make you feel better. Humour rather than sadness is a lot less strenuous on a persons’ emotional state. The relief theory is a prime example as to why people laugh, as it releases negative tension that people may store in their mind for a period of time (Perks, 2012). So it is not very surprising that when we laugh or add humour to a negative situation, that we feel a sense of relief. The following chapter will explore further as to what some of the effects humour has on emotion.

Why study humour?[edit | edit source]

Humour is an important topic to study because it is so often seen as a coping strategy for so many people. Stress and anxiety are apart of daily experiences for most people, so learning to cope with these life stresses is very important. If these stresses are not dealt with in a timely and effective manor, it can result in an emotional overload. Although every individual has their own way of coping with anxiety and stress, humour tends to be a very efficient coping strategy. This idea of a coping strategy was made famous by non other than Freud. He believed that humour acts as almost a cure for negative emotions. Since then theories on humour have changed somewhat from Freud’s unconscious perspectives.

Theories[edit | edit source]

There are a many theories that are associated with humour and it’s psychological aspects such as emotion. However, humour can also affect an individuals motivational drives, social relationships and physical health. Considering humour has influence on such a variety of areas within the human make up, theories and research have been proposed by academics in many different fields. This is very beneficial as it provides eclectic views and perspectives on the subject of humour, therefore supplying even more academics to have a better sense of what to look for in future studies. In the paper "The ancient roots of humour", Perks explores some of the earliest philosophical theories of humour in relation to human behaviour; incongruity, relief and superiority (2012). For the purpose of this paper we will explore the relief theory as it is most closely related to humour and its effects on emotion. According to Perks relief theory supports that humour helps to get rid of emotions that have build up over time and provides a quote that states “that laughter provides relief for mental, nervous and or psychic energy and thus ensures homeostasis after a struggle, tension or strain etc” (2012). Perks mentions Plato as one of the theorists who believed that negative emotion are comparable to that of physiological pain and that humour and laughter act as somewhat of a cure for that negative emotion (2012).

According to Martin there are three psychological processes involved with humour: social context, a cognitive perceptual process, and emotional response (2007). First off social context refers to the idea that we are social creatures, creatures that use and implement “play” into our lives (Martin, 2007). Unlike other animals, we use humour as a source of play. It is suggested that using humour with each other allows the more serious situations to be less stressful. The cognitive perceptual process refers to the mental process that is involved in humour (Martin, 2007). This mental process refers to how an individual can produce humour, and also store and understand humour (Martin, 2007). For example telling a joke can be the production of humour, but if you hear a joke, how does one comprehend it or understand it. If a person is in particularly happy mood they may find the joke funnier than if they were in a more negative mood. The emotional response process refers to the idea that humour itself could be classified as an emotion, as studies have shown that it can increase mood (Martin, 2007). Martin suggests that the emotional aspect has been missing in many studies, and instead they focus heavily on cognitive process, likely because it is easier to measure (2007). The emotional response process is very important because it is associated with pleasure, a very important emotion that can effect our perception and mood throughout day-to-day tasks (Martin, 2007).

Research[edit | edit source]

Although it is difficult to measure humour and individuals’ mood or emotional state, many psychologists and academics have taken interest in the matter and have successfully produced significant research in terms of humour and emotion. A common procedure of this may include something like showing participants a humorous clip of a video followed by participants having to complete a stressful task. One primary example of this was conducted many years ago, and was built on even older theoretical perspectives by non other than Freud. Now although this research was conducted a long time ago it can provide present day psychologist with a lot background information that may be important when conducting their research on humour. In the study Humour and Anxiety Doris and Fierman were curious to see how participants differentiated on the self-rated anxiety scale and how then responded to humourous stimuli (1956). Participants were split up into two groups: high anxious (HA) participants and low anxious participants (LA). These groups were determined by a self-rated general anxiety questionnaire (Doris and Fierman, 1956). Once the participants were placed in their groups, all participants were presented with a humour stimulus (Doris and Fierman, 1956). For this particular study, the stimuli were cartoons that were collected from a popular magazine (Doris and Fierman, 1956). Each stimulus was presented one at a time to each participant (Doris and Fierman, 1956). After they had been exposed to all cartoons, they were shown the cartoons again and were asked to indicate their preference on rating scales from Very Much Disliked to Very Much Liked (Doris and Fierman, 1956). Results indicated that there was a relationship between participant’s anxiety and their preference for the humourous cartoons that demonstrate aggressive content (Doris and Fierman, 1956). The second finding concluded that the relationship between rated anxiety and humour was dependent on the social context of the cartoon (Doris and Fierman, 1956). Doris and Fierman did conclude however, that for future studies that the type of humour stimulus needs to carefully take into consideration the social context of that humour (1956). Another improvement mentioned was; to look into alternative techniques when measuring anxiety (Doris and Fierman, 1956). Studies like this present other academics with techniques and ideas that can be changed a modified to further understand how presenting humour can affect people’s perspectives on how they feel about something, like a cartoon.

Present research has shown that there is a difference between positive humour verses negative affiliated humour when it comes to regulation of emotions. For example, in the study Humour as emotion regulation: The differential consequences of negative versus positive humour, Samson concluded that positive emotion verses negative emotion resulted in the increase of positive emotion and decrease in negative emotions (2012). Although they did draw these conclusion, Samson did address that there are four different ways humour may facilitate coping (2012). This is important to recognise because the address different mechanisms for why humour is beneficial for our emotions. The first reason as to why humour may facilitate coping is that humour uses a fair amount of attention resources, which then leave little attention resources to process the negative emotions (Samson, 2012). Another reason suggest that humour works as a counterpart to dispose of negative emotions (Samson, 2012). The third suggestion states that humour is based on perspectives, and that humour is associated with positive emotion therefore distracting the individual from negative emotions (Samson, 2012). Lastly, states that humour can change the way a negative situation is perceived as the humour makes the situation seem less threatening (Samson, 2012). Each of these perspectives on humour provides psychologists with many explanations and opportunity for research purposes.

Table 1: Samson (2012)

Studies have shown that humour does effect ones mood, however, when looking back at the first question, does laughing make you live longer, these studies can not predict or suggest that humour has long term health effects.

Stress and Anxiety[edit | edit source]

No matter the level or degree, all human beings experience stress and anxiety many times throughout life. As stress and anxiety affect the sympathetic nervous system, humour can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the heart rate to decrease and muscles to relax (Robbins, 2009). When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered the individuals’ emotion state is heavily affected (Robbins, 2009). For example, if the individual is stressed this may impede their mood, facial and body expressions etc. In the study Humor, Stress and Coping Abel was seeking to find the effects of humour on the participants’ appraisal of everyday problems (2002). Abel’s findings concluded that those in the high sense of humour group appraised emotional-focused and problem-focused situations as less stressful than those in the group with a low sense of humour. Research such as this one conducted by Abel tells psychologists two key pieces of information regarding humour and emotion (2002). Table 1 shows that Abel’s finding concluded there is a clear positive correlation between the use of humour and emotional state such as coping (2002). Research like this helps to provide insight for field of psychology, especially in the area of therapy. Therapy sessions can be very difficult for the patient at times as it often brings up a lot of negative and stressful emotions that the patient is experiencing. In both Strean (1994) and Mosak’s (1987) book, they suggest that implementing humour within the therapy sessions can help the patient feel more comfortable and relaxed during the session. According to Strean, once patience experiences some sort of humour, they begin to disclose information to the psychologist with more ease.

Table 2: Simple regression lines showing relationship between number of everyday problems for low and high sense of humor in the total sample. (Abel, 2002)

Humour can also be considered a sort of mechanism to promote physical health. According to Martin, the positive emotional states that accompanied by something like laughter and amusement can help to support the body’s immune system (2001). Martin states that “Thus, positive emotions, regardless of how they are generated, may have analgesic or immuno-enhancing effects or may have an “undoing” effect on the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotion” (2001). With that being said one can conclude that maybe having a good sense of humour and laughing can have beneficial effects on the physical body as well.

Where is humour used in a practical setting?[edit | edit source]

Think about some of the most boring lectures you have ever sat in? Now also think about some of the best lectures you have ever sat in. Think about the professors that conveyed those lectures. What was different about them in regards to how they taught the lesson? Why did you end up liking the class or disliking the class? For a lot of students, how exciting and entertaining the professor is can really make a huge difference. For the purpose of this chapter 20 students (10 males and 10 females) who were randomly selected on the University of Canberra campus were asked, “What is the most important characteristic you feel a professor should possess in order to motivate their students”? 15 of the 20 students’ first response were along the lines of “they make the class exciting, and have a good sense of humour”. After the response students were asked why having a sense of humour was so important. Student responses indicated 3 main conclusions as to why humour was so important:

  1. They enjoyed the class more
  2. They were able to focus and take in more information
  3. They felt the professor’s sense of humour made them seem more approachable making it easier to ask questions or advice on assessments.

All of these responses provided by the students are related to emotion in some way or another. The first response for example “enjoyed the class more”, indicates an emotional aspect because enjoyment would be related to a positive emotional state. When someone enjoys something they often associate positive feelings or thoughts to the task or experience. This first response is most related to the mood of a person while in class. Mood can be defined as “any short-lived emotional state, usually of low intensity.” That being said, the emotional state during the time of the lecture is positive, especially when humour is being used to convey the information.

The second response “ they were able to focus and take in more information” also is related to emotion because of the students mood, or short-lived emotional state during the lecture. If a student is in a negative mood of some sort, distracting them from what the professor is saying their brain may not be as efficient when taking in the information. However, if the professor is using humour, this could distract the student from these negative emotions. This idea relates back to Fredrickson & Levenson ‘s suggestion about humour as a coping method, used as a sort of distracter. Even if the student is not in a negative mood but more of a neutral mood, the use of humour can draw the attention of the students, making them more susceptible to listen and pay attention.

On a more personal basis, response level 3 is more associated with the students’ feelings towards the professor. Considering humour is often used in activities such as icebreakers or introductions, it safe to say that humour helps to relax and make people feel more comfortable in new or stressful situations. In this specific case, professors who use humour in the classroom often appear more approachable to the students. So for example if a student wants to talk to their professor privately about an assignment, they may be more willing to do so because the professor is more approachable. Implementing humour into different work and educational environments can be a very beneficial. Leaders and teacher often use humour as a sort of tactic to help capture the audiences’ attention. But why does humour work so well? During a work day or day of classes, one’s emotions during that particular day can really effect how that persons absorb information. For example, to open up a lesson or meeting, people conveying the information, like teachers or boss often use a joke or make a funny comment to help relax and grab the attention of their audience.

In an educational setting, often including children, humour can make a huge difference for the emotional state of students (Ducharme, 2011). A child is more likely to first off create a positive association with the teacher if the teacher makes them laugh(Ducharme, 2011). . Positive associations may then encourage the child to enjoy. If the child enjoys listening to the teacher, their emotional state will likely be more positive, in turn, resulting in more motivation to learn and listen to what the teacher is saying. An example of this is demonstrated in one study by (Wanzer et al., 2010) suggested that affricative and self-enhancement type of humour used in the classroom showed a positive correlation of coping and psychological well-being.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Although difficult to test and or determine, it is fair to say that humour does effect people’s emotions in a positive way. Dating even as far back as Plato, up until present day studies, humour has always been a fascinating and mysterious subject, as humans are the only organisms to experience humour. Research and studies have indicated some of the effects on humour, however there is still a lot unknown and lot more to discover about the effects of humour. Stress has been an example that is quite common throughout research studies, but most studies do indicate in the conclusion what can be improved or explored for future studies. We do know it can be used as a type of coping strategy to reduce stress; as well it can help people to relax and feel more comfortable in stressful environemnts. In conclusion, with the support of previous studies, psychologists and other academics have a sort of sense as to what humour contributes on the emotion end of human behaviour.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Psychologists have concluded that laughing and having a sense of humour can directly effect you physiologically and psychologically, therefore extending your life expectancy.


2 Humour triggers the parasympathetic nervous system.


3 One’s mood is the result of their emotions. These emotions are short-lived and can change very quickly.


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Abel, M. H. (2002). Humor, stress, and coping strategies. Humor: International Journal Of Humor Research, 15(4), 365.
  2. American Psychology Association. (2007). American Psychology Dictionary.
  3. Ducharme, J. (2011). Bridging the Gap Between Clinical and Classroom Intervention: Keystone Approaches for Students With Challenging Behavior. School Psychology Review, 40(2), 257-274.
  4. Doris, J., Fierman, E. (1956). Humor and Anxiety. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 53(1), 59-62
  5. Martin, R. A. (2001). Humor, laughter, and physical health: Methodological issues and research findings.Psychological Bulletin, 127(4), 504-519.
  6. Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Amsterdam Netherlands: Elsevier.
  7. Mosak, H. H. (1987). Ha Ha and Aha: The Role Of Humour In Psychotherapy. Accelerated Development.
  8. Robbins, B. (2009). The Self-Regulation of Humor Expression: A Mixed Method, Phenomenological Investigation of Suppressed Laughter. Humanistic Psychologist, 37(1), 49-78.
  9. Perks, L. (2012). The ancient roots of humor theory. Humor: International Journal Of Humor Research, 25(2), 119-132.
  10. Samson, A. J. (2012). Humour as emotion regulation: The differential consequences of negative versus positive humour. Cognition & Emotion, 26(2), 375-384.
  11. Strean, H. S. (1994). The use of humor in psychotherapy. Lanham, MD US: Jason Aronson.
  12. Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instructor humor and student learning: Instructional humor processing theory. Communication Education, 59(1), 1-18.