When screenwriter Nora Ephron's mother was on her deathbed, she had one instruction: "Take notes". For the family of writers and raconteurs, no event was too painful to be burned in the crucible of their wit. "Everything," Ephron Senior said, "is copy". Nora Ephron applied the philosophy religiously with the semi-autobiographical novel and film Heartburn, documenting her husband's cruel affair with "a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb".
As she explained later: "When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke."
Clearly, it worked for Ephron - with Heartburn, she laughed her way from the divorce lawyers to Hollywood, becoming one of the world’s most successful comedy writers. But how about the rest of us? Recently, Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhbandner at the University of Regensburg in Germany decided to test whether humour really does offer a valuable form of emotional regulation. They were particularly concerned with the possibility that jokes simply work as a distraction, making you think about something other than your hurt feelings. While that may help in the short term, it could impair your memory, so that you no longer remember exactly why you were upset. That would be a rather counter-productive way to manage our feelings: we all need to learn from our mistakes if we are to protect ourselves from further heartbreak.
If, on the other hand, the value of comedy comes from "reappraisal" – turning yourself from the victim into the hero, as Ephron claimed – then the memory should not be weakened, since you are still paying attention to the details. If so, humour should be a particularly effective way of helping you to flourish after upset.
To disentangle these two possibilities, Kugler and Kuhbandner opted to perform a carefully controlled lab study, to compare the effects of humour with a form of "rational appraisal" – a technique in which you try to detach yourself from an event and look at it logically, while distancing yourself from the emotional pain it brings.
Sixty-three undergraduates looked at a set of negative emotionally charged pictures, some of which were accompanied by a sentence that was either a straight, "rational" appraisal, or a joke. For instance, next to a scary picture of a snake bearing its mouth, the subjects either saw a straight, factual sentence explaining that this snake couldn't bite because it didn't have any teeth, or a funny quip about the snake's glare: "When eggs are sold out in her favourite supermarket, Henrietta can get very angry". Other negative images included a wounded child, a bomb, a hurricane, and a crying soldier, among others, all with either an accompanying factual and reassuring explanation or a joke.
The students rated how negative or positive they found each image, and whether they felt emotionally aroused by it or not, and then, a few minutes later, they had to note down details of as many of the pictures as they could remember. As a further test of the students' memory, Kugler also showed them another set of images, which included some of the previous pictures, and the students had to report whether or not they recognised the images.
As Ephron might have predicted, the students seeing the humorous stimuli found the negative images considerably less upsetting, even compared to those viewing the rational facts that helped put the pictures in a less disconcerting perspective: clearly, laughter does soothe distress. What's more, humour did not seem to impair memory any more than rational reappraisal: in fact, viewing the humorous comments even made the students slightly quicker to recognise the negative images later on. In other words, it didn’t seem that the jokes were distracting participants from the details of the images themselves and the value instead came from reinterpreting their content in a less negative light.
From these findings, you could conclude that humour really is the best medicine when it comes to heartache, even more than sober detachment and re-interpretation. But we should be a little reluctant to read too much into the experiment, with its rather restricted set-up. Viewing slightly upsetting pictures is a far cry from discovering a spouse's betrayal! What's more, the rational reappraisal process in the study was more passive than in real life: it's far easier, but perhaps less effective, to read a pithy picture caption, compared to finding a sober way to re-evaluate our real-life tribulations.
On the other hand, this study could have underestimated the power of humour. Participants completed the tasks alone, but laughter is most often a social activity. As Sophie Scott at University College London and others have found, we are far more likely to laugh when we're with other people, particularly people we like. It's likely that hearing others laugh could itself be cathartic and help to heal our wounds.
More realistic research is clearly needed to build on this lab study. Still, the findings are certainly consistent with the idea that, if nothing else, laughter may be the chink of light that reminds us even the darkest days will end eventually. As Ephron put it: "My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next." And that's enough to bring anyone comfort, the next time we face tragedy (or simply slip on a banana skin).
Kugler L, & Kuhbandner C (2015). That's not funny! - But it should be: effects of humorous emotion regulation on emotional experience and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6 PMID: 26379608
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Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is BBC Future’s feature writer.
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