Individuals With Depression Use Humor to Cope

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We all know the adage “laughter is the best medicine,” but for individuals struggling with depression, humor can be either a tool for healing or a method of hiding depressive symptoms. Recent studies on the intersection between depression and humor examine the behavioral patterns of individuals with depression.

Results suggest that humor, when integrated into treatment for depression, can boost spirits and reinstate lost self-confidence. However, jokes can also be manipulated as a tool to avoid confrontation, appease audiences, or otherwise distract from other depressive symptoms.

The Four Humor Styles

Rob Martin and Patricia Doris developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire (2003) to assess the function of humor in daily life. The 32-question self-conducted survey categorizes individual humor-use into one of four styles: Affiliative Humor, Self-Enhancing Humor, Aggressive Humor, and Self-Defeating Humor. The former styles reflect positive behavioral effects, indicating that the subject uses humor to facilitate relationships and productively manage stress.

Those with a high score for the Affiliative Humor style often use humor within groups, structuring an environment of ease and comfort through jokes. The Self-Enhancing Humor style reveals a tendency to employ humor to cope with stress or enhance one’s mood. Though Affiliative and Self-Enhancing Humor styles suggest healthy social capabilities, Aggressive and Self-Defeating Humor types are associated with poor mental and emotional health.

Writing for, Dr. Gil Greengross states that “Scoring high on the two positive humor styles has been linked with various positive health outcomes, such as being happier and having healthier relationships. On the other hand, having high scores on the negative humor styles can have a negative effect on one’s health.”

Aggressive Humor is used against others and individuals who display this style of Humor use jokes to manipulate, disparage, and offend other people or groups. Self-Defeating humor directs insulting jokes toward the self. This type of humor is used to hide feelings from oneself and others, making it an effective tool to diminish the severity of depression in social interactions.

A recent study conducted in Australia used the Humor Styles Questionnaire to determine if individuals diagnosed with depression score higher on the latter two humor styles. Researchers found that women were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from depression, affirming a disparity between males and females found in other studies of the disorder, and participants with depression scored higher within the Self-Defeating Humor category.

There was no significant difference in scores between depressed and non-depressed participants within the Aggressive Humor category. Dr. Greengross writes that, “In sum, the study not only established that humor styles are correlated with depression, but also that at least some of these correlations are the result of some underpinning genetic influences (though not identifiable yet).”

These results are supported by a study conducted at Oklahoma State University that found that individuals who regularly use Self-Defeating Humor are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts when experiencing “thwarted belongingness,” “perceived burdensomeness,” or other stresses related to social interaction.

Comedians and Depression: A Study From St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford

In 2014, students from St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford published a study titled ‘Psychotic Traits in Comedians.’ The authors, based in the Department of Experimental Psychology, researched the behavioral patterns of comedians to develop a personality profile.

Common to both male and female comedians were the opposing forces of “introverted anhedonia,” unsociability and depressive behaviors, and “extroverted impulsiveness,” energetic and manic-like behavior. The comedian profiles bear strong similarities to the profile of an individual with bipolar depressive disorder.

Humorist Stephen Fry, himself diagnosed with bipolar depression, speaks to the co-occurrence of humor and depression in a single moment when describing previous performances. Women scored higher for “impulsive nonconformity,” impulsive and antisocial behavior indicative of low self-control, than male counterparts, and researchers hypothesize that female comedians rely on this behavior to elevate themselves to the status of their peers.

The presence of conflicting behaviors promotes the theory that contradictory emotions of joy and depression arise simultaneously, and humor is engaged as a coping mechanism for the negative behavior is a process called “manic defence.” In an article for the Huffington Post, Dr. Raj Persaud considers the theory that, “Depression might motivate a talented humourist to find ways of alleviating the low mood. Joking becomes a form of self-medication.”

Can Doctors Use Humor to Heal?

Behavioral studies show that Affiliative Humor can protect against suicidal thoughts and other symptoms of depression. Integrating positive styles of humor into treatment for depression can elevate the spirits of both patient and practitioner. Affiliative and Self-Enhancing Humor styles are beneficial strategies for dealing with stress in social, professional, and personal life.

Finding something to laugh at during treatment can also rebuild broken confidence. Conversely, negative styles of humor may signal poor mental health and should be monitored by professionals. Friends and family who notice an increasingly bitter brand of humor in a loved one may want to extend help or alert a professional.

At Silver Lining Recovery, we want to walk beside you as you address your anxiety, depression, and other emotional or mental disorders, providing you with the support you need as you combat co-occurring problems like substance abuse disorder. When you understand your mental state, you can begin to heal. Your health is our priority, and we want to provide you with the tools you need to sustain self-care in a balanced and fulfilling life. We will also accommodate any financial needs though Health Net insurance services. If you are interested in taking control of your depression, call us today at (866) 884-5758 for a consultation.