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Go on have a laugh – The Psychology of Humour

Source | LinkedIn : By Mellissa Ferrier

It was great to be back home for the Easter break. Last week I was lucky to see one of Australia’s greatest comedians, Judith Lucy, on stage as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was a brilliant show – ridiculously funny and wicked – and left me feeling energised and happy for the rest of the week. It’s been ages since I laughed so hard. Why does watching a comedy show or humour generally, make us feel so good?

The psychology of humour

Laughter is a great stress relief, a chance to take break from the seriousness of life and helps us stay in the present. Jokes aside, humour is serious business as it serves a number of social, cognitive and emotional functions. Humour is fundamentally a social phenomenon. We tend to laugh more when we are around others than when we are alone. We also use it to create opportunities for play, increase feelings of acceptance and in-group bonding. At a cognitive level, there are complex cognitive processes and perceptions that help us perceive something as funny. We draw on our memory and our surroundings as well as playfully manipulate with ideas, words and activities in creative ways. Humour is also more than a cognitive response because it also causes a pleasant emotional response and an increase in positive mood. Rod Martin found that humour serves important psychological functions in his famous book, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach –

  • Social benefits of positive emotions: When people experience positive emotions as compared to negative emotions, they show improvements in their cognitive abilities (more creative problem solving, better judgement, improved decision making) and prosocial behaviours (e.g., higher levels of social responsibility: helpfulness and generosity) as well as developing and maintaining key relationships
  • Using humour for influence: Engaging in humorous exchanges during our daily lives can not only provide amusement but also gain attention and approval from others. Humour can be a powerful influencing tool in serious and confrontational situations and help people ‘save face’. For example, rather than discuss a difference of opinion in a serious way, two parties can instead joke about each other’s perspectives. This will communicate a sense of acceptance and appreciation of one another while still acknowledging their different points of view and avoid becoming embroiled in endless arguments.
  • Humour for stress relief and coping. Finally, humour plays an important role in coping with everyday life stress and adversity. By making light of adverse events and stressful situations into something that can be laughed at helps us feel more in control and less threatened. Humour is a way of refusing to be overcome by situations or people that might threaten our well-being.

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