People often say that laughter is the best medicine, but is all humor the same? According to a study published in Scientific reports of natureDespite the fact that many people like to joke about their stressors, non-stress related humor is best for emotional regulation.
Adverse experiences happen to everyone, but people who have never struggled with depression recover from it much more easily than people who have a history of depression. This is due to a lack of emotional regulation in people who were previously depressed, suggesting a need to understand and strengthen emotional regulation skills in this population.
Humor is a well-known positive emotion regulation strategy that previous research has shown can mitigate negative outcomes. Humor comes in different types, with some stress-based humor (i.e., making jokes about the stressor) and other stress-distracting humor (ie, making jokes off-topic). This study aims to understand the effects of each of these types of humor on ameliorating negative emotions in people with depression in remission.
Study author Anna Braniecka and her colleagues recruited their sample from outpatient psychiatric clinics. Their final sample consisted of 94 participants, 65 women and 29 men, ranging in age from 18 to 65. All participants had to have remitted depression. Participants were randomized into three groups: stress-related humor, non-stress humor, and non-humor regulation (control).
For this study, subjects came to the lab in person and completed self-report measurements of emotions, and were then encouraged to report on their own stressful situations. In the stressful state, participants wrote down what they feared and then answered a series of questions until the result was ridiculous. For stress-independent individuals, the humorous scenario involved an unfamiliar fictional person. The control participants identified positive and negative parts of the scenario.
All participants answered questions and then had a lag time watching a nature video. They then answered more questions about the video and how much they thought about their stressful situation during the video.
Results showed that both types of humor were better at improving emotions, stress, and intrusive thoughts than the non-humor intervention. Despite this, the beneficial effects of humor-related interventions are very short-lived, with participants returning to baseline about 20 minutes after the intervention. An individual’s ability to use humor in the face of stress is not adversely affected by depressive symptoms.
Researchers hypothesized that stress-related humor would produce better results than non-stress humor, but this turned out to be inaccurate. Both types of humor had similar effects on positive emotions, but non-stress humor had better results when it came to improving negative emotions, stress, and intrusive thoughts.
This study made advances in understanding humor as a tool for emotional regulation. Nonetheless, it still has its limitations. One such limitation is that this research is limited to only the short-term effects of humor and it is possible that the long-term effects are different. Additionally, there was no intervention in this study that was not humor-based and unrelated to the stressor. Future research could include this.
The study “Differential effects of stress-related and stress-unrelated humor in remitted depression” was authored by Anna Braniecka, Iwona Wołkowicz, Anna Orylska, Anna Z. Antosik-Wójcińska, Agnieszka Chrzczonowicz-Stępień and Ewelina Bolek.