Humor can help decrease negative emotional reactions in people vulnerable to depression, according to new research published in the journal Brain and Behavior. The findings offer preliminary evidence that humor could be an effective emotion regulation strategy.
“I spent many years working with depressed patients and this made me realize important it is to provide vulnerable people with evidence-based tools for dealing with negative emotional experiences. Indeed, in some vulnerable people, even a slightly lowered mood can escalate into clinical depression, and the main factor that underlies this process is impaired ability to regulate negative emotions,” explained study author Anna Braniecka, an assistant professor at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland.
“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.”
“Humor has been widely recognised as beneficial for health for years, and many psychotherapists believe it is a powerful treatment technique. Although there are increasing research reports that the use of humor in the face of adversity involves a number of adaptive regulatory mechanisms, the effect of humor on negative emotion in people at high risk of depression still needed to be scientifically determined.”
The study of 55 patients with remitted major depression found evidence that the use of humor could dampen negative emotional reactions.
The participants viewed a series of 28 negative pictures such as war scenes and sick people. After viewing each picture, the participants rated their emotional responses.
The researchers then instructed the participants to view more of these pictures. But this time, the participants were asked to comment on them. Sometimes the participants were told to comment on the situation depicted in the photo in a humorous way, while at other times they were told to generate positive comments about the picture. Sometimes they were simply asked to describe what they saw.
When participants were asked to make a humorous comment, they tended to report less negative emotions and more positive emotions after viewing the picture.
“These findings may have practical value mostly for people at risk for depression, in particular for those who have already experienced a depressive episode in the past, because they are in the highest-risk group for further depression,” Braniecka told PsyPost.
“It should be stressed, though, that due to preliminary nature of this study, drawing practical implications requires some caution. However, we can definitely state that humorous reappraisal of negative events not only reduces negative emotion, but also effectively enhances positive emotion, and increases psychological distance from adversity.”
“As such, it appears that humor could broaden depressed individuals’ repertoire of adaptive tools of dealing with potentially depressogenic experiences, and in the long run, enhance their resilience. The study also demonstrated that creating humor in the face of adversity is difficult and requires from vulnerable individuals substantial effortful, which may potentially lead to their reluctance and lack of success in applying this strategy,” Braniecka said.
“However, the results showed that participants did surprisingly well – in the vast majority they generated humorous comments to adverse situations, and found them as subjectively funny. What is more, participants’ failure to generate humor did not deteriorate their mood, which may be very promising for practice, especially that the sensitivity to defeat stress is in depression vulnerability usually high.”
“The content analysis of humorous comments also seems optimistic, as it indicates that, despite depressed individuals’ strong inclination towards negative interpretations, they apply almost exclusively a positive, good-natured kind of humor. Accordingly, the obtained results may also encourage mental health specialists, as well as relatives and friends, to support depressed people in taking everyday worries less seriously and approaching them in a humorous, and thus less threatening, way, even if it may seem challenging at first,” Braniecka added.
The study provides some initial evidence of the benefits of humor, but the researchers emphasized that more research is needed.
“The extent to which our results can be generalized to other potentially depressogenic situations is unknown. Because this study is the first step in this emerging field of research, the design was experimental and included one specific laboratory context. Further research is needed to investigate humor in real-life situations that reflect day-to-day functioning in depression vulnerability,” Braniecka explained.
“In addition, we investigated one particular form of humor – humorous reappraisal of adversity, whereas, the impact of other ways of using this strategy, such as ‘unrelated joking’ or ‘laughing at oneself,’ is still unknown. We are currently launching another study to explore the consequences of different humor types used by depressed individuals in various negative contexts.”
“The study combines two main areas – positive psychology and clinical research,” Braniecka said. “Accordingly, it fits in with the new scientific approach to vulnerability to depression that goes beyond traditional symptom-focused perspective and emphasizes the importance of increasing resilience by developing appropriate character strengths and positive experiences.”
The study, “Is it worth turning a trigger into a joke? Humor as an emotion regulation strategy in remitted depression“, was authored by Anna Braniecka, Małgorzata Hanć, Iwona Wołkowicz, Agnieszka Chrzczonowicz‐Stępień, Agnieszka Mikołajonek, and Monika Lipiec.