Is humor an effective treatment for mental health disorders?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Medically reviewed by Kevin Kennedy, MD
Published July 29, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Research has shown that humor can be used to work through negative emotions and thought patterns, and to upregulate positive emotions. Some experts believe humor may impair the potential of aversive events to trigger depressive episodes.

  • Studies have found that humorous coping was an effective strategy in downregulating negative emotions in the long term and upregulating positive emotions in the short term.

  • The long-term success rates of humor in emotional regulation are still unknown, and more research is needed.

It’s not surprising that humor is considered an effective coping strategy for dealing with adverse life circumstances—so much so that it’s now being studied as a tool for helping people struggling with mental health disorders, specifically depression.

Although the concept of humor and its relation to emotions has been studied for decades, recent research has explored specific behavioral therapy techniques associated with humor, and how these techniques can potentially help individuals with mental health disorders.[]

Laughter's healing power

Research has shown that humor can be used as a buffer against the negative effects of stress and as an adaptive response to adversity and challenging life circumstances.[]

Humor is also associated with “feel-good” emotions, most likely from the release of neurotransmitters (including dopamine and serotonin) that play a pivotal role in mood regulation.

Humor can be used as an adaptive tool to work through negative emotions and thought patterns associated with aversive events.

It can also be used to upregulate positive emotions. As a result, some researchers and mental health experts believe that humor may impair the potential of aversive events to trigger future depressive episodes.

Coping versus cognitive reappraisal

Emotion regulation refers to the processes that influence which emotions people have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.

One particularly effective form of emotion regulation is cognitive reappraisal, which refers to changing the subjective meaning of an emotion-eliciting event to change its emotional impact, rather than focusing on and changing the objective event that occurred. This can be seen as “looking at the silver lining” of a situation.

Cognitive reappraisal has been shown to decrease negative emotion in the moment and the short-term future after the objective event occurred.

Humorous coping is often used to upregulate or evoke positive emotions such as laughter. A study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology compared humorous coping to conventional reappraisal in terms of emotional regulation.[] The authors initially thought that conventional reappraisal would downregulate negative emotions, and humor would evoke positive emotions.

This study used descriptive photos that provoked either a positive, negative, or neutral emotional response. It also used both humor and conventional reappraisal to elicit emotions about the images.

Stress-related and -unrelated humor

Another study focused on individuals with depression, and asked them to recall a current issue that was personally stressful to them and use emotion regulation manipulation via different types of humor to elicit emotions about the event.[]

The researchers used stress-related humor—a type of conventional reappraisal and non-stress-related humor. Stress-related humor is based on focusing attention on an emotion-eliciting situation to transform its negative meaning into a humorous one.

Conversely, stress-unrelated humor relies on disengaging attention from the emotion-eliciting stimuli and transferring it to other humorous material. Thus, its primary mechanism is a distraction. They compared both humor mechanisms to non-humor regulation.

Study outcomes

Findings in both studies indicated that when humorous coping was more successful than serious reappraisal, it was the more effective strategy to downregulate negative emotions and upregulate positive emotions in the short term and downregulate negative emotions in the long term.

Positive emotional effects from humor were not sustained long-term, most likely due to the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation—a theory that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness in a short duration, regardless of how many positive emotions they are experiencing.

It’s important to note that in the Europe’s Journal of Psychology study, humorous coping was more complex and less frequently successful than serious reappraisal. This could be because it’s sometimes difficult to find humor in negative situations.

Humor seems to be an especially functional emotion regulation strategy that may outperform other emotion regulation strategies, such as conventional reappraisal.

However, more research needs to be done to determine how these emotional regulation theories compare over the long term.

Defense mechanisms

The concept of defense mechanisms originated in psychoanalytic theory; defense mechanisms are used to protect the ego from emotional pain through the unconscious mind. The use of defense mechanisms can have positive or negative implications, depending on the particular mechanism and how it is used.

The defense mechanism denial in substance use disorders serves as a negative barrier to seeking treatment; however, the defense mechanism of humor may be used as a healthy coping mechanism to function as adaptive ego defense by enabling people to perceive the comical absurdity in highly challenging situations.

A treatment for depression?

The long-term success rates of humor in emotional regulation are still unknown. Since depression is usually a chronic disorder, more research is needed.

With that said, if a healthcare professional is trained in emotional regulation using humor, it most likely will not hurt the patient’s emotional state. According to research, using humor can help downregulate negative emotions and upregulate happy emotions, at least for the short term.

Can humor be used as a form of treatment? Perhaps—in combination with other treatment types such as behavioral therapies and medications.

However, if humor treatment is going to be “evidenced-based,” it’s essential for healthcare providers to have a background in humorous coping and conventional reappraisal. Also, subjectively stated, it always helps if they have a good sense of humor.

What this means for you

While further research is needed to determine the long-term effectiveness of humor as a treatment for depression or other mental illnesses, studies have shown that it can provide short-term upregulation of happy emotions and downregulation of negative ones. So you should consider gaining a background in humorous coping and conventional reappraisal techniques as potential tools to help provide comfort to patients.

Read Next: Research explains how laughter is the best medicine
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