New research indicates that people who use humor to arouse sympathy for human imperfections or act silly to make others laugh tend to experience less pathological worry. But the findings, published in Personality and Individual Differences, suggest there can also be a dark side to humor.
“Humor is one of the most effective forms of communication that humans employ, and it is of interest in the case of applied research into mental and physical health,” said study author Alberto Dionigi, a member of the International Society of Humor Studies who received his PhD from the University of Macerata.
“I am Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist and my main research interest is studying the benefits of using humor in several settings, and I have been studying it for 15 years. Humor may have a plenty of positive effects, such as serving as an emotion regulation; a coping strategy and a distraction technique: in these ways, humor may attenuate negative emotions and improve positive ones.”
“I usually use humor during my work, when I encounter many patients and I see how often a positive and lighter view may help in promoting personal wellbeing,” Dionigi explained. “So, I decided to focus on this topic to better understand the relationship with specific categories of humor, worry (the cognitive aspect of anxiety) and wellbeing.”
The researchers recruited 254 Italian participants aged 18 to 67 years for their study. The participants completed a scientific questionnaire known as Comic Style Markers, which captures the use of both positive and negative styles of humor. They also completed an assessment of pathological worry and the World Health Organization-5 Well-Being Index.
Those who engaged in two positive styles of comedy (fun and benevolent humor) tended to report lower levels of pathological worry and higher levels of psychological wellbeing. Those who engaged in cynicism, on the other hand, tended to report higher levels of pathological worry and lower levels of psychological wellbeing.
“Humor is not a unitary concept: it may have both positive and negative facets. Generally speaking, several studies have shown that people with a greater (adaptive) sense of humor show less anxiety and stress compared to people with a lower sense of humor,” Dionigi told PsyPost.
“In this research, we were able to identify which type of humor is associated with reduced worry and which type is positively correlated with wellbeing. So using humor to spread good mood and good companionship (fun) and to discover humorous discrepancies in everyday experiences (benevolent humor) are associated with lower worry and higher wellbeing. In contrast, cynicism (aimed at devaluing commonly recognized values) can lead to poor wellbeing and to increased worry.”
Other aspects of humor, such as wit, irony, sarcasm, and nonsense, appeared to be mostly unrelated to worry and wellbeing.
The new study suggests that “people who habitually worry when facing a stressful situation may utilize positive forms of humor to enhance their wellbeing and be able to find an alternative way to deal with worry,” Dionigi said. Because of the cross-sectional nature of the data, however, it is also possible that people who habitually worry are more likely to become cynical.
“Future studies should evaluate how much personality traits influence these results and whether there could be cultural differences,” Dionigi noted.
The findings are in line with previous research, which has found that the use of positive humor is associated with increased optimism and lower anxiety and depression. Previous work has also indicated that humor can be an effective emotion regulation strategy for individuals at risk of depression.
But Dionigi said that more needs to be learned “about the positive and negative effects of specific features of humor.”
“I hope that the research in this field helps people in living their life in the most flourishing way they can,” he added. “Humor is a double edge sword and must be used in the more correct way.”
The study, “Humor and anxiety: The relationship between the comic styles, worry and general well-being“, was authored by Alberto Dionigi, Mirko Duradoni, and Laura Vagnoli.