Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Humour and emotion regulation

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Humour and emotion regulation:
What role does humour play in emotion regulation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Ah, humour; it's a topic that's hard to define and even harder to execute in life. Everyone has been in some sort of situation where a well-timed joke and a little laughter has helped alleviate the mood-

  • Whether you've tried to stop your friends from arguing with each other by making a clever reference to a mutual favourite movie or show ("Sigh I'm surrounded by idiots.")
  • Whether you've been forced to introduce yourself to strangers ("That's my name, don't wear it out.")
  • Or whether you've had to deal with making a mistake ("Well. That didn't go as badly as I thought!" / "Are we looking at the same wreckage here?")

Life is easier when we're able to use our humour and laugh it off. But why is this the case? This book chapter will look at humour and emotion regulation, and in particular, how humour plays a role in regulating our emotions. Ultimately, this chapter aims to explore how we can use humour to cope and regulate our emotions in order to make our lives (and even others') better.

Focus questions

  • What is humour?
  • What is emotion regulation?
  • What role does humour play in emotion regulation? (And can we really just "laugh it off"?)

What is humour?[edit | edit source]

Everyone has their own definition of what is humorous, but what exactly is humour? According to the Oxford Dictionaries (, humour is "the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech"; "a mood or state of mind". Psychologically speaking, humour has many facets and is rather broad, meaning that it can be defined in quite a few different ways (Martin, 2001). In fact, humour can refer to a stimulus meant to invoke a humorous response, a mental process, or a response (Martin, 2001).

From a cognitive perspective, Strick, Holland, Van Baaren & Van Knippenberg (2009), who were quoting many others (Goel & Dolan, 2001; Mobbs, Greicius, Abdel-Azim, Menon, & Reiss, 2003; Raskin, 1985; Suls, 1972), consider that humour "includes an incongruity that must be resolved to get the joke" (Strick et al., 2009, p. 575). In other words, humour is about twisting the expected, and making it unexpected; a "paradox in a playful context" (Forabosco as cited in Martin, 2001).

Coming from a social perspective, humour is integral in "interpersonal communication and attraction" (Murstein & Brust as cited in Martin, 2001, p. 505), and being able to utilise humour can be considered a sign of social competence (Martin, 2001).

Meanwhile, 'sense of humour' is a term used to describe a personality trait or a variable of individual differences which varies from person-to-person (Martin, 2001; Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2003; Bennet & Lengacher, 2006), and allows for individualised responses to a variety of humorous stimuli (Bennet & Lengacher, 2006). It also refers to "habitual individual differences in all sorts of behaviours, experiences, affects, attitudes, and abilities relating to amusement, laughter, jocularity, and so on" (Martin as cited in Martin, 2001, p. 505).

According to Samson and Gross (2012), there have been a lot of inconsistent findings about the effects of humour; however, that may be due to the fact that there are different kinds of humour that consequently have different effects. One of the most common ways to classify humour is between positive and negative humour, as seen in the table below (based on Samson & Gross, 2012).

Table 1

Differences Between Positive and Negative Humour (Samson & Gross, 2012)

Positive Humour Negative Humour
Good-natured Mean-spirited
Benevolent, non-hostile Aggressive, hostile
Integrating Disparaging

We can break it down even further, based on how individuals utilise humour. On the positive side, we have self-enhancing humour and affiliative humour; on the negative side, we have aggressive and self-defeating humour.

  • Self-enhancing: as the name suggests; using humour to enhance the self, but in a way that is "tolerant and non-detrimental to others" (Martin et al., 2003, p. 52)
  • Affiliative: humour that is used to build and develop relationships with others in a way that is "relatively benign and self-accepting" (Martin et al., 2003, p. 52)
  • Aggressive: a hostile use of humour used to ridicule and belittle others, where humour is used at the expense of, and detriment to, other people (Martin et al., 2003)
  • Self-defeating: humour used at the expense of oneself, potentially leading to "detriment of the self" (Martin et al., 2003, p. 52)

These four humour styles can affect how an individual copes with a situation and regulates their emotions, which can therefore have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing (Martin et al., 2003).

A brief Freudian take on humour

Freud thought it was important to differentiate between humour, joking, wit, sarcasm and irony (i.e. other "laughter-related phenomena", Samson & Gross, 2012). He considered humour to be "sympathetic, tolerant, and benevolent amusement at the imperfections of the world and the foibles of human nature in general" (Samson & Gross, 2012, p. 376). Freud was rather philosophical in his definition of humour and thought that humour involved a sense of "not taking oneself too seriously and being able to poke fun at oneself" (Samson & Gross, 2012, p. 376) as well as being able to detach oneself when looking at life (Samson & Gross, 2012).

Freud's definition here considers humour as a mental process.

In this chapter, humour will mostly refer to a sense of humour, or humour as a mental process.

What is emotion regulation?[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation is about how one emotionally responds to positive and negative environmental stimuli and how good they are at moderating their emotional responses (Kugler & Kuhbandner, 2015; Kuiper & Martin, 1993; Samson & Gross, 2012). In the realm of humour research, researchers mostly focus on coping; that is, how people respond to stress and other negative emotional states (Kuiper & Martin, 1993; Samson & Gross, 2012; Strick et al., 2009).

Being able to regulate one's response to stress can be incredibly important, especially if an individual is frequently placed in high stress situations. In the past, World War II soldiers and prisoners of war (POWs) relied on their 'black humour' to cope with stressful and traumatic events (Burnell, Coleman, & Hunt, 2010), as seen in the quote below.

"if one spoke about [trauma] ... it was with the usual black or gallows humour that arises in these situations ... we hadn't heard of ... post-traumatic stress ... the two expressions in use were that you were 'shit-scared' ... and if you were shit-scared often enough you became 'bomb happy'." - quoted from a WWII veteran in a study by Burnell et al. (2010)

But it's not just people in the military who use humour to cope. Some of the individuals using humour are even closer to home. For example, a study by Wanzer, Booth-Butterfield & Booth-Butterfield (2005) looked at coping in nurses, while another study by Sliter, Kale, and Yuan (2013) looked at coping in firefighters. Unsurprisingly, firefighters are often exposed to highly stressful environments in their line of work; for example, potentially having to face "danger, accidents, and/or dead/dying people" (Sliter et al., 2013). Similarly, nurses must develop a way to cope with taking care of difficult patients, caring for patients who may die, patient deaths etc. (Wanzer et al., 2005). These are known as traumatic workplace stressors, and appear in most emergency response occupations such as the police and emergency medical teams (Sliter et al., 2013).

Coping humour can be considered as a specific kind of 'sense of humour' or trait humour, and is defined as the ability of an individual to use humour as a way to cope with stressful or demanding circumstances (Sliter et al., 2013). In this way, humour can act as a sort of buffer to deal with negative outcomes such as dissatisfaction with one's job (which affects how well an individual can carry out their job; Wanzer et al., 2005), burnout (which involves being disengaged with work and exhaustion due to unresolved stress; Wanzer et al., 2005; Sliter et al., 2013), and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (Sliter et al., 2013).

While these are more extreme cases of how humour can help with emotion regulation, there are still important points to consider from these studies. Wanzer et al. (2005) focused more on how humour is a communication skill that can be developed to help cope with stress. To quote the researchers, "We are not advocating the creation of a hospital full of comedians" (Wanzer et al., 2005, p. 122), but having nurses who can communicate with humour under stress are more likely to cope better and be more satisfied with their job, which may help prevent burnout in the future (Wanzer et al., 2005). Sliter et al. (2013) made a similar finding in that humour acted as a buffer against burnout and PTSD symptoms when faced with traumatic stressors (Sliter et al., 2013).

Interestingly, while nurses tended to engage in humour that involved wordplay, light banter and 'silly' or absurd humour (Wanzer et al., 2005), firefighters tended to utilise 'black' or 'gallows' humour (Sliter et al., 2013), similar to the quote above. Gallows humour comes with having to face the prospect of death or encountering individuals who may be dying (Sliter et al., 2013). Both occupations utilise different types of emotions, yet in both cases, humour still has a positive effect in emotion regulation. Which begs the question: how can two seemingly opposite senses of humour both have a positive effect on emotion regulation?

What role does humour play in emotion regulation?[edit | edit source]

Unfortunately, the true mechanism (or mechanisms) underlying how humour influences emotion regulation is a cause of debate among researchers (Samson & Gross, 2012). That being said, there have been a few mechanisms and ideas about the role humour plays in emotion regulation.

Psychoanalytical perspective[edit | edit source]

Because Freud's psychoanalytical perspective was all about the struggle between conscious and unconscious psychological processes and the anxiety that went with it, Freud believed that the pleasure we get from humour comes from allowing "momentary gratification of some hidden and forbidden wish" (Levine, 1969, p. 9) without the anxiety that usually comes with inhibiting said forbidden wish (Levine, 1969). Another way Freud thought humour brought pleasure was through the ability to abandon logic and rationality and take on a more nonsensical way of thinking (Levine, 1969, p. 9). As one can extrapolate, these mechanisms are based on removing the anxiety that comes about when the conscious and unconscious collide and allowing the unconscious to surface in a trivial, harmless way (Reeve, 2018). With this in mind, it makes sense that Freud considered humour to be one of the best forms of defence mechanisms (Kuiper, Martin & Olinger, 1993; Sliter et al., 2014), as it allowed an individual to accept their mistakes and shortcomings and acknowledge them in a "socially acceptable way" (Reeve, 2018).

Cognitive perspective[edit | edit source]

Meanwhile, the cognitive perspective on humour focuses on how stimuli are processed and suggest three main mechanisms:

1. It's all about the appraisal (and reappraisal): Cognitive reappraisal of negative stimuli

Humour gives us another way to filter the world, and if we use a humorous point of view to appraise a negative situation, it may seem less threatening (Kuiper & Martin, 1993; Strick et al., 2009; Samson & Gross, 2012; Kugler and Kuhbandner, 2015). Samson and Gross (2012) in particular investigated this by manipulating the viewing of a negative stimulus; in their case, an image. After viewing the negative image a second time, the researchers got their participants to verbally make a humorous reappraisal of the negative stimulus (Samson & Gross, 2012). They found that making a humorous reappraisal (specifically, a positive reappraisal) allowed participants to up-regulate positive emotions; in other words, it led to participants experiencing more positive emotions afterwards (Samson & Gross, 2012). Sliter et al. (2013) also considered this mechanism as one of the potential ways that humour acted as a buffer against traumatic stressors.

Based on processes described in the following study: Strick, M., Holland, R.W., Van Baaren, R.B., & Van Knippenberg, A.D. (2009). Finding Comfort in a Joke: Consolatory Effects of Humour Through Cognitive Distraction. Emotion, 9(4), 574-578. doi:10.1037/a0015951 (available from
Figure 1. Diagram of how humour may act as a cognitive distraction during exposure to negative stimuli (based on the process described by Strick, Holland, Van Baaren & Van Knippenberg, 2009 in their paper 'Finding Comfort in a Joke: Consolatory Effects of Humour Through Cognitive Distraction')

2. Humour as a distraction!

Humour uses the attentional resources that would have been used to maintain a negative emotion in response to a stimulus (Strick et al., 2009), therefore it becomes a cognitive distraction when you're trying to appraise a situation (see Figure 1; Strick et al., 2009; Samson & Gross, 2012; Kugler & Kuhbandner, 2015). In a study by Strick et al. (2009), it was found that when humorous positive stimuli was shown after a picture inducing negative feelings, participants recorded lower feelings of negativity compared to being shown a non-humorous positive stimulus (Strick et al., 2009). The researchers suggest that this is due to the fact that humorous stimuli requires a greater cognitive demand to process compared to non-humorous stimuli, so humour ends up using up attentional resources that would have otherwise gone into the processing of negative emotions (Strick et al., 2009). That being said, " the distraction of humour does not solve problems" (Strick et al., 2009, p. 577). It is important to note that distraction only works for short-term periods, and if an individual is faced with a stressor that lasts for a longer period of time, humour may not work as well if it is simply used as a distraction (Strick et al., 2009).

3. With humour, comes positive emotions

Humour is usually accompanied by positive emotions, so the positive emotions help to regulate and counteract negative feelings (Strick et al., 2009; Samson & Gross, 2012; Kugler & Kuhbandner, 2015). This concept helps to explain Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build model in relation to humour.

Positive vs. negative humour[edit | edit source]

As mentioned in the 'What is humour?' section, the literature has actually been quite inconsistent about the effects of humour on health (Samson & Gross, 2012). It really depends on what you're looking at e.g. effects on mental health, well-being, trait measures, health etc. (Samson & Gross, 2012). However, as one may guess, positive styles of humour are usually found to be more beneficial (Samson & Gross, 2012). Positive humour is more related to things like self-esteem, positive emotions, optimism, and other indicators of psychological health and well-being, and less related to depression, anxiety and other negative moods (Samson & Gross, 2012). On the other hand, negative styles of humour are more related to hostility, aggression, psychological distress and dysfunction (Samson & Gross, 2012). They are less related to relationship satisfaction and psychological well-being (Samson & Gross, 2012). This suggests that positive humour may have a positive effect on psychological health (Samson & Gross, 2012).

Samson and Gross' (2012) study examined the effects of positive and negative humour on emotion regulation by having their participants respond to negative images. They found that positive humour assisted in "up-regulating positive and down-regulating negative emotions" (Samson & Gross, 2012). Interestingly, they consider the idea that the mechanisms behind the effect of positive and negative humour are different (Samson & Gross, 2012). While positive humour may allow for reappraisal of the situation in a less threatening way (as mentioned above), they also assume that negative emotion may help appraise the situation by creating an "emotional distance from the negative event" (Samson & Gross, 2012).

Another way to explain this positive effect on health and well-being is through the Broaden-and-Build model.

Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build model[edit | edit source]

Source: en:Image:Lava Man-2006 Pacific Classic.jpg
Figure 2. A picture of Thoroughbred race horse, 'Lava Man' in the saddling area prior to the 2006 Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar Racetrack, taken by Matt Brockmeyer

Imagine a horse race. The horses are in the starting gates, rearing to go as their jockeys try to keep them calm. If you take a closer look at some of the horses, you will find that a few of them (if not all of them) are wearing blinkers or blinker hoods (see Figure 2); pieces of tack that limit a horse's peripheral vision so that they focus on what's ahead. While the jockey can see the whole field and take in their competitors, the horse is only focused on one thing: the track ahead of it. Because of this, they only have one reaction when the gates open. They run straight ahead.

Negative emotions can have this sort of blinkered effect on individuals; their thoughts and actions in response to a negative emotion or stimulus become limited (Fredrickson, 2001). This concept of having particular thoughts and actions in response to stimuli (also known as an individual's thought-action repertoire) is the basis of Fredrickson's (2001) model. In life-threatening situations which can be associated with negative emotions (e.g. stress, fear etc.), having a very limited thought-action repertoire may be beneficial since urgent, decisive action usually needs to be taken (e.g. fight, flight, or freeze; Fredrickson, 2001). Positive emotions, on the other hand, don't often occur in life-threatening situations; therefore, something that momentarily narrows an individual's thought-action repertoire may not be needed, since strict action doesn't always need to be taken to reap immediate benefits (Fredrickson, 2001). In fact, positive emotions appear to have the opposite effect; they broaden an individual's momentary thought-action repertoire, dispelling the running-with-blinkers mentality of reacting in a limited way, and allowing the individual to widen the thoughts and actions they have (Fredrickson, 2001).

While this thought-action system works nicely momentarily, it also has enduring effects. The more you widen your repertoire of thought-action tendencies, the more it becomes part of the way you think in future situations; in other words, it builds your personal resources of how you deal with future events (Fredrickson, 2001). Linking back to the cognitive mechanisms, humour is often accompanied by positive emotions. This relationship implies that humour may follow Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build model, such that humour and the positive emotions that come with it can lead to a broadening of an individual's thought-action repertoire.

This was found in a study by Crawford and Caltabiano (2011), which investigated how Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build model worked to underpin a programme designed to improve emotional well-being by developing humour skills (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011). Participants were recruited from the Cairns community and divided into three groups: a control group that didn’t receive the intervention, a social group who simply met for morning tea, and the humour group who completed the Humour Skills Programme (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011). By including a social group, the researchers aimed to determine whether engaging in fun social gatherings had a separate positive impact on emotional wellbeing (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011).

They found that compared to the other two groups, the humour group experienced increases in optimism and perception of control, and decreases in negative emotions and perceived stress (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011). What’s also interesting is that - again, compared to the other two groups - increases in optimism kept increasing, and were found to still be elevated 3-months after the study was conducted (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011). These results suggest that with humour comes positive emotions, which helps to build an individual’s optimism (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011). Their optimism is a personal resource they can then draw from in order to better cope with challenges that they experience in their lives (Crawford & Caltabiano, 2011).

Quick Questions[edit | edit source]

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Time for some Rapid Review!

1 What perspective did Strick, Holland, Van Baaren and Van Knippenberg take to explain humour?


2 Which is not an example of negative humour?

Mean Spirited
Aggressive, Hostile

3 The 'broaden' of the Broaden-and-Build model refers to:

Broadening the type of humour one uses
Broadening the amount of time between appraisals of stimuli
Broadening one's thought-action repertoire
Broadening one's horizons by looking into the future

4 The 'build' of the Broaden-and-Build model refers to:

Building up the number of jokes one knows off by heart
Building up personal resources to deal with future events
Building resilience
Building one's ability to use humour

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

So, can we use humour to help us regulate our emotions and lead a better life? As we can see from the research, there's evidence that positive humour and humorous reappraisals of negative situations can be beneficial in regulating emotions. However, many of the studies referenced in this chapter look at humour in the present, or study it in retrospect; it isn't clear yet whether positive and negative types of humour have long-term effects on how people cope and regulate their emotions (Samson & Gross, 2012). Despite this, research has found that not only can positive humour boost optimism in the present, but the more we use humour to appraise situations and look at life, the more it can become a habit that eventually builds our personal resources to deal with future events. This may not be the same for individuals who work in highly stressful environments, such as those working in emergency services, however, humour is still an important tool for communication in order to cope with traumatic events.

Clearly, humour has an important role to play in how we regulate our emotions. Whether we look at circumstances with positive or negative humour, get distracted by it, take a chance to reappraise a situation, or use it to communicate with others about a stressful event, humour is a tool that humans readily have available. So, try to keep a spring in your step and remember, as with all tools it's not about how 'good' it may (or may not) be; it's all about how you wield it.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Burnell, K.J., Coleman, P.G., & Hunt, N. (2010). Coping with traumatic memories: Second World War veterans’ experiences of social support in relation to the narrative coherence of war memories. Ageing & Society, 30, 57-78. doi:

Crawford, S.A. & Caltabiano, N.J. (2011). Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 237-252. doi:

Frederickson, B.L. (2001) The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226. doi:

Kugler, L. & Kuhbandner, C. (2015). That's not funny! But it should be: effects of humorous emotion regulation on emotional experience and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1296. doi:

Kuiper, N.A. & Martin, R.A. (1993). Coping Humour, Stress, and Cognitive Appraisals. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 25, 81-96. Retrieved from

Kuiper, N.A., Martin, R.A., & Olinger, L.J. (1993). Coping humour, stress, and cognitive appraisals. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 25, 81-96. doi:

Levine, J. (Ed.). (1969). Motivation in Humor (1st ed.). New York, USA: Atherton Press, Inc.

Martin, R.A. (2001). Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health: Methodological Issues and Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 504-519. doi:

Martin, R.A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 48-75. doi:

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Samson, A.C. & Gross, J.J. (2012). Humour as emotion regulation: The differential consequences of negative versus positive humour. Cognition and Emotion, 26, 375-384. doi:

Sliter, M., Kale, A., & Yuan, Z. (2013). Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect of coping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 35, 257-272. doi:

Strick, M., Holland, R.W., Van Baaren, R.B., & Van Knippenberg, A.D. (2009). Finding comfort in a joke: Consolatory effects of humour through cognitive distraction. Emotion, 9, 574-578. doi:

Wanzer, M., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (2005). "If we didn't use humor, we'd cry": Humorous coping communication in Health Care Settings. Journal of Health Communication, 10, 105-125. doi:

External links[edit | edit source]