A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones, says a well-known biblical proverb. We don’t have to be practicing Christians to recognise its truth.

We know from experience how a good mood can lift us from our troubles, gives us energy, an appetite for life, or a more restful sleep. Consciously or unintentionally, we seek the company of funny people, those who infect us with their joy. The need for “laughter therapy” explains the success of humour on television, its virality on the Internet, and the popularity of stand-up comedy shows.

As the saying goes, laughter is more than just a way to occasionally relax and achieve detachment from the stresses of life. Our ability to experience humour is an inexhaustible resource for well-being. Throughout his thirty years of work, Dr. Rod Martin, a professor of clinical psychology and a pioneer in the scientific research of humour, has tried to understand the mechanism behind this widespread phenomenon. How it comes into being, why some like it while others don’t, and to what extent we can use it to relieve stress and improve our relationships—these are just some of the questions that Dr. Martin has explored over time.

Humour theories and studies

An interest in the complex universe of humour was born long before the twentieth century. Aristotle himself formulated a theory of the motivation for its occurrence, “the theory of superiority”. According to the philosopher, arrogance enables people to treat the unhappiness of others with superiority, which explains the irony often manifested in interpersonal relationships.

A second theory, closely related to Freud’s studies (the theory of liberation), emphasises the psychological release caused by a good dose of laughter. Through jokes, humorous interpretations of reality, and a light-hearted approach, individuals seek to stay in balance with themselves, and to relax.

Another theory, the incongruity theory, states that the juxtaposition of two contradictory ideas is what creates the comic effect—humour being, in this case, an expression of people’s need to look at life unconventionally, and to escape, even for a few seconds, from their everyday thought patterns.

Each of the three theories studies the problem from different angles. Beyond the popular explanations, the fact that a sense of humour is part of a set of essential skills seems to be the unanimous conclusion of specialists, who distinguish between the cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and expressive component of humour.

  • The cognitive component refers to the process by which we identify the unique element of a real or imaginary situation, later categorised as “funny”—it does not quite fit.
  • The emotional component refers to the unique psycho-emotional response to a given situation. The realisation is usually accompanied by the activation of pleasure centres in the limbic system.
  • The interpersonal component refers to the social context in which people laugh together, or the contagion of the reaction. Although it can be (and often is) a solitary experience, studies show that we have more fun just by being in the presence of others than when we are alone.
  • The expressive component refers to laughter as a physiological act determined by internal or external stimuli.

Laughter is also considered to be a “behavior associated with disorder and disobedience, a threat to political power, a sign of indifference to authority, including divine authority.” It has officially become a great asset to those who practice it. Laughter then, for most of us, is an under-exploited treasure.

Humour and the quality of life

Knowledge on the influence of humour on quality of life has gone beyond the empirical sphere. Even without taking an exhaustive look at everything that can be known about the subject, the research of the last few years gives a generous picture.

As a basic feature, our ability to have fun is a formidable antidote to sadness, stress, a lack of concentration, inefficiency at work, and relationship issues.

Laughter makes us smarter: studies show that watching a comedy show improves cognitive test results. It also increases the intimacy of the couple (despite the fact that, unlike men, women laugh less often as they get older) and helps us to deal with potentially stressful situations. A relaxed attitude lowers levels of stress hormones (epinephrine and cortisol) and activates the motivational (reward) dopaminergic system, detecting novelty as a challenge worth following.

Humour, or a lack thereof, influences one’s perspective on the future, but also on the past. Recent experiments suggest that the ability to laugh in the face of trouble refines the colour with which we see our past, emphasising either the positive or the negative details.

Along with other equally important ingredients, humour strengthens self-esteem, facilitates anxiety control, and improves the immune system and cardiovascular activity. It strengthens the cohesion of groups, and provides surprising clues about the personalities of its members.

By watching the way different people laugh when they are together, external observers can appreciate the nature of those people’s relationships and the degree of closeness, as well as observing different personality types (dominant or submissive) or social status.

Flexing one’s sense of humour stimulates creativity, performance, and productivity at work. In a study conducted at the Australian National University, participants were divided into two groups and invited to watch a video with comedic quality (group 1) and neutral material (group 2). After viewing, those in group 1 managed to remain engaged in a difficult task for almost twice as long as the other group. It is no coincidence that large corporations regularly organise fun events and arrange special recreation spaces for their employees.

School performance also increases where laughter is involved in the teaching routine. Adapted for the learning context, humour stimulates students’ involvement in the learning process, maintains attention among young children, and captivates students. The key is not the laughter itself, but the relaxed atmosphere that facilitates unity between teacher and student in the classroom. Teachers who are kind and funny form strong connections with their students, and fostering a solid connection sits at the top of the factors responsible for learning efficiency.

Humour as a coping mechanism

As science demonstrates, humour acts as a great coping mechanism. Unfortunately, the mechanism can also fail. Thus, in addition to the “good” humour, which makes us healthier, better integrated and safer, specialised literature also describes a kind of humour that is harmful and toxic.

Although the line between the two is extremely thin, the differences matter enormously. We have, on the one hand:

malicious self-irony, which undermines self-esteem (within the style of self-destructive humour) versus harmless self-irony, which allows us to make fun of our own mistakes without feeling bad (style based on self-development)

and on the other hand:

mischievous teasing of others or mockery (aggressive style) versus jokes, laughter, sarcasm enjoyed by both parties (associative style).

Depending on the model we adopt in our daily lives, we cultivate, or do not cultivate, certain personal benefits. The bad news is that we can’t radically change our characteristic style—it corresponds to particular personality traits of the self that define us. The good news is that we can refine our personalities, by eliminating the tendency to be cynical, toxic, or aggressive when we respond to, or make jokes ourselves.

Given that humour works spontaneously, as a result of subconscious mechanisms (partly inherited, partly learned), a goal like “today I will try to be funny” is a misguided goal. This is true at least in everyday social life, since being funny is not like fulfilling an assignment or balancing an account.

What we can consciously do to gain important benefits such as emotional balance, positive interactions, job satisfaction, and so on, is to include humour in our broader view of life—one based on empathy, support, and respect (both for others and for ourselves). We can’t be funnier than we are—to paraphrase Dr. Martin—but with a carefully managed effort, we will succeed.

Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.