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Drink Up! Laughter is the Best Medicine

You walk into your friend’s room and find them crying, and so you desperately try to cheer them up. Give them a hug? No, they look like they want their space. Tell them it’ll all work out? No, they won’t believe you. Ok, how about you crack a light-hearted joke? Yes! They’re smiling so you add a little more humor. Suddenly, your friend begins to laugh so hard that the tears disappear. Who knew you were so funny that you could cure stress! Well, actually, quite a few cognitive researchers could’ve told you that. Turns out laughter really is the best medicine…

Laughter is the best medicine!
Picture from bing.com

Why is it that humor improves our negative feelings such as sadness and stress? Well, for starters, it’s a distraction. Humor takes our attention away from all of the bad things happening in our lives, and instead makes us focus on something that feels good. If you’ve ever been stressed, you probably spent a pretty significant amount of time concentrating on whatever it was that made you feel that way. Humor and laughter can break this strong focus and direct our attention elsewhere. You are therefore prevented from putting all of your attention and focus on stressful topics. This is important because our attention is very limited. If we’re using up all our attention thinking about how stressed we are, how will we possibly get anything done? In all, because it is a positive interruption, humor stops you from being completely overwhelmed and run down with stress.

Humor diverts our attention because we are biased toward anything funny or that makes us laugh. Something funny will capture our attention for much longer than something that is not. In fact, when tracking someone’s eye movements, it has been shown that people spend more time looking at something that is considered humorous than a neutral piece of information (Strick et al., 2009). The amount of time someone spends looking at one thing, or going back to look at it again, tells us whether they are paying attention to it. By showing that someone is looking at something for a long time, we can conclude that they are paying close attention to it. They are more focused on that stimuli. If their eyes glance over a stimuli we can thus conclude that they have not paid attention to it. This is also important because the more we pay attention to something, the easier it is to later remember it. What this means is that our memory is also biased toward humorous ideas and concepts. Humor captivates both our attention and our memory! The implications of this in relation to stress are that it is therefore easy for our attention to be redirected from feeling stressed out, to laughing at a funny joke. 

Even just paying a brief amount of attention to humor can act as a safety blanket to make revisiting any negative emotions a little bit easier (Martin et al., 2012). This is because humor makes you feel more at ease, and less stressed, so the negative feelings won’t be as strong. You can revisit the feelings with a more level-headed mind. This means that you might start to feel overwhelmed again, but after calming yourself down and reducing that stress, it’ll be a little bit easier. Humor is thus both a distraction, and a defense mechanism against stress and negative emotions.

Using humor as a coping mechanism
picture from: https://newfastuff.com/meme-generator/why-do-you-always-wear-that-mask/

Humor can be used as a coping mechanism in all sorts of situations. Picture it like this; it’s a Friday night and you’re feeling down because your friends didn’t invite you to a party. Naturally, you’re pretty upset and the feeling of loneliness and stress of being excluded will start to feel pretty heavy. In fact, you’re not paying attention to anything except how stressed you are, which does not feel good. So, you grab your phone and turn to TikTok, a platform that has made the world of comedy easily accessible (Galer, 2020). Sure enough, the videos are funny, and you’re laughing (maybe even out loud). In fact, they’re funny enough that you’re not even thinking about the party anymore. Your stressful feelings are momentarily relieved, and that feels pretty great. Until, of course, you eventually exit out of the app after incessive scrolling. Without the distraction, you’re once again reminded of how stressed you feel and therefore the negative emotions begin flooding back into focus. But here’s some good news! All of the humor you just experienced built up a shield to prevent those feelings from hitting quite as hard as they did before. Humor protects you from the full force of stress. What this should tell you is that humor truly is a coping mechanism… and a good one too!

Humor is a shield that protects you from negative emotions
Picture from: www.dreamstime.com

Sure, something funny might make you feel better by decreasing your stress levels, but how does this affect your daily life / actions? Well, by calming you down, humor can actually improve your performance and lead to future success. After exposure to some type of comedy, you will be able to do things that you could not accomplish before. This is because when you’re extremely stressed, you get overwhelmed. It’s hard to do well, or want to do well, on anything when you’re too busy worrying (Conner et al., 2010). So, you need to decrease your stress and negative feelings in order to be more focused and productive. This is why humor is so important. If humor can decrease our high stress levels, in effect it can also help us do better on tasks.

Here’s a scenario that shows humor’s effect on our performance; test-taking. Tests often induce stressful feelings in students. Imagine we have two students: Emma and James. They’re both hard-working students who get the same grades on quizzes and even have an equivalent GPA. They studied the same amount for an upcoming math test. On the day of the test, they sit in their seats and anxiously watch the test papers get distributed around the room. Some side effects of their stress include frustration, being overwhelmed, and having a difficult time quieting down their minds in order to focus (Marks, 2021). They can’t stop wondering if they studied enough, or if they will remember everything. How are they supposed to do well on a test with so many negative feelings bouncing around? But then, moments before the exam, Emma gets a text from her mother. It’s a short, funny comic strip. She quickly reads it, giggles to herself, and then turns off her phone. When the exam gets to her, she’s still laughing at her mother’s funny text, and she’s hardly feeling her prior negative emotions. Meanwhile, James continues to overthink everything bad that could come from this exam. Two weeks later, they get their tests back and Emma receives a much higher grade than James.

The reason for this is that Emma’s mind wasn’t stuck in a constant cycle of stress. The comic strip was able to relax her and relieve her stressful feelings. She was calmer going into the exam, and therefore had a much easier time completing the test. This was all thanks to her exposure to humor. Humor helped her by decreasing her stress levels. James, on the other hand, never saw anything funny. He stayed stressed, and therefore was much more distracted and overwhelmed during the test.

This may be a fabricated story, but it is an example of a very real phenomenon. As a way of managing stress, humor impacts performance and promotes students’ success (Ford et al., 2012). Humor can make students do better on tests. It momentarily relaxes students, and this allows them to go into tests feeling calmer. If Emma hadn’t seen the funny comic, it is likely she wouldn’t have performed as well on the test. She would’ve been overrun with negative feelings. Thanks to humor, these emotions were relieved, or in other words, controlled.

Ultimately, humor influences our cognitive abilities. It captures our attention and has a hold on our memory. It also takes away negative feelings like stress or sadness and improves our performance. Giving yourself breaks to read hilarious articles, laugh with your friends, or watch the sitcom you love doesn’t just feel great, but is great.

Bibliography

Martin, R. A., Lefcourt, H. M., (2012). How TikTok changed the world in 2020. BBC Culture. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201216-how-tiktok-changed-the-world-in-2020

Ford, T. E., Ford, B. L., Boxer, C. F., & Armstrong, J., (2012). Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance. Humor. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/humor-2012-0004/html 

Conner, J., Pope, D., & Galloway, M., (2019). Success with less stress. Stanford University. https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:mf751kq7490/Conner_Pope_Galloway_EL2009.pdf

Martin R. A., (2001). Humor, laughter, and physical health: methodological issues and research findings. Psychological bulletin, 127(4), 504-519. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.127.4.504

Amici, P. (2020). Humor in the age of COVID-19 lockdown: An explorative qualitative study. Psychiatria Danubina, 32(1), 15-20. https://hrcak.srce.hr/file/381537  

Marks, H. (2021). Stress Symptoms. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-symptoms-effects_of-stress-on-the-body

Strick. M., Holland. R., Van Baaren. R., Van Knippenberg. A., (2009). Humor in the eye tracker: attention capture and distraction from context cues. The Journal of General Psychology, 137(1), 37-48 https://doi.org/10.1080/00221300903293055

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