What makes you laugh the loudest? We're talking side splitting, saliva spraying, I can not breathe laughter here. For some people, hearing a friend tell wryly how they almost face the sidewalk can do it. Others may take a more antagonistic approach and prefer jokes that offend someone else. Then there are some things that almost anyone would find funny, like the recent viral accident involving a lawyer unknowingly appeared as a kitten during a virtual legal procedure.
You've probably heard the old saying that comedy is subjective: Different people find different things humorous. Over the decades, psychologists and other researchers have explored different aspects of humor styles. Much of this research is focused on what our humor preferences might say about us as individuals – and in particular what they suggest about our mental health.
Humor styles and mental health
Clearly, humor can have a powerful impact on both our physical and mental health. The idea that laughter is the best medicine exists since biblical timesIn his 1905 book, Jokes and their relationship to the unconscious, Sigmund Freud argued that humor is what it is highest of the defense mechanisms of the psyche, able to turn fear into pleasure.
Still, not all humor – and by extension, their effects on your well-being – are the same. To better distinguish which types of humor promote mental well-being and which forms can be actively harmful, psychologist Rod Martin and his colleagues developed the Humor Styles QuestionnaireThe assessment measures how people use humor in their daily lives, broken down into four different styles:
Affiliative humor refers to jokes about things that can be considered universally funny. It is usually used to facilitate relationships or make others laugh. If you've ever shared a ridiculous meme with a coworker or teased it among your friends, you've used affiliate humor.
Self-improving humor means that you can laugh at yourself and the absurdities of life. It is often used as a way to deal with stress or hardship and feel better as a result. Good-naturedly telling you that you spilled red wine all over the tablecloth at a fancy dinner would certainly apply.
Aggressive humor is, well, laughter at the expense of others. It's often about sarcasm, teasing, ridicule and criticism. Think abusive comedians like Jeff Ross or the late Don Rickles (known for roasting Frank Sinatra and other celebrities on TV).
Self-destructive humor the trick is to put yourself down to gain approval from your colleagues. In other words, make yourself the butt of the joke. For example, this kind of humor can be used by someone who is the target of bullies – effectively preventing the ridicule of themselves before it is caused by someone else.
Your unique sense of humor is probably a mix of these four styles, but many people lean in one direction. (You can even see for yourself which type you lean towards.) And each style has its own pros and cons when it comes to mental health.
Julie Aitken Schermer, a psychology researcher at the University of Western Ontario, says humor is self-centered, adaptive, and positive – otherwise known as self improvement – can be a special psychological blessing. “People who engage in that kind of humor can cheer themselves up by thinking about positive or funny events (and) experiences,” she says. In addition, people who use self-enhancing humor are less likely to show signs of depression, loneliness, and bad relationships with others.
In contrast, both aggressive and self-defeating humor styles can indicate problems. "We notice that those people are more likely to injure themselves," says Schermer. “Personally, I would say that self-defeating humor is the most concerning style, as it is related to it loneliness and the feeling of irrelevancePeople with an aggressive humor style may not experience loneliness as much as they rely on group dynamics to make fun of their peers.
Learn to laugh at yourself
Even if you prefer humor styles that are more negatively skewed, there is no need to despair. Schermer says people can work towards a positive, self-enhancing humor style – first, by simply learning about it. Then consider how you feel about events in your own life. When you replay an event in your head over and over, do you focus on negative elements and ruminate, or do you remember the funny aspects of the situation?
Fencer suggests focusing on the lighter and more humorous aspects of your life to develop self-enhancing humor. "The individual should be aware of and not focus on putting themselves down in the situation they remember," she says.
Or, as author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: "Laughter and tears are both reactions to frustration and exhaustion. I prefer to laugh myself, because there is less tidying up afterwards."