Study uncovers the psychological consequences of two distinct kinds of humor in depression patients

People often say that laughter is the best medicine, but is all humor created equal? According to a study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, despite the fact that many people like to joke about their stressors, humor not related to stress is the best for emotional regulation.

Adverse experiences happen to everyone, but people who have never struggled with depression are able to bounce back from them much more easily than people who have a history of depression. This is due to a lack of emotional regulation in people who have been depressed previously, which hints toward a need to understand and bolster emotional regulation skills in this population.

Humor is a widely known positive emotional regulation strategy that previous research has shown can alleviate negative outcomes. Humor comes in different types with some humor being based in stress (i.e., making jokes about the stressor) and some humor distracting from stress (i.e., making jokes that are off topic). This study aims to understand the effects of each of those types of humor on improving negative emotions for people with remitted depression.

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, with an age range of 18 to 65. All participants had to have remitted depression. Participants were randomly assigned into three groups: stress-related humor, stress-unrelated humor, and non-humorous regulation (control).

For this study, the subjects arrived at the lab in-person and completed self-report measures on emotions and then encouraged to share about their own stressful situations. In the stress-related condition, participants wrote down what they feared and then answered a series of questions until the outcome was ridiculous. For stress-unrelated, the humorous scenario involved an unknown fictional person. The control participants identified positive and negative parts of the scenario.

All participants answered questions and then had a delay period where they watched a nature video. After this, they answered more questions about the video and about how much they thought about their stressful situation during the video.

Results showed that both types of humor were able to improve emotion, stress, and intrusive thoughts better than the non-humor intervention did. Despite this, the positive effects of humor-related intervention are very short lived, with participants returning to baseline around 20 minutes after the intervention took place. Individual’s ability to use humor in the face of distress is not negatively affected by depressive symptoms.

The researchers hypothesized that stress-related humor would yield better results than stress-unrelated humor, but this turned out to be inaccurate. Both types of humor had similar effects on positive emotions, but stress-unrelated humor had better results when it came to improving negative emotions, distress, and intrusive thoughts.

This study took strides in understanding humor as a tool for emotional regulation. Despite this, it still has its limitations. One such limitation is that this research is limited to just the short-term effects of humor, and it is possible that long-term effects would be different. Additionally, this study did not have an intervention that was not humor-based and not related to the stressor. Future research could incorporate 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.

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