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The Role of Humour

Often listed as a quality we appreciate in others, humour has a double-edged effect.

On one hand, humour, defined as the noticing of the amusing or ironic truth of a situation, results in laughter which has psychological, emotional and physiological benefits.

Laugher stimulates chemical changes in the brain that help buffer our bodies against the cumulative effects of stress. Laughter stimulates the release of endorphins that elevate mood, helping depressive symptoms. It also aids in lowering blood pressure.

Laughter releases tension in the muscles of the face, neck, shoulders and abdomen, all common areas where tension tends to be held.

Laughter acts as a social signal and synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned. Most of what makes people laugh is not thigh-slapping jokes but subtle comments made related to the current conversation.

Considering this connecting nature of laughter, it is not surprizing that laughter is contagious. We are drawn to it.

Neuroscientist Robert Provine concluded that laughter establishes a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people especially when it comes to partner selection.

Provine found that men enjoy women who laugh heartily in their presence. Females laugh 126% more than males and males are the primary laugh-getters. Interesting to note, the female laughter is the critical index of a healthy relationship. He also found that laughter in relationships declines dramatically as people age.

However, we must be aware of the misuse of humour and laughter.

Humor can serve as an unhealthy way to avoid conflict in relationships. People may appear as always good-natured and happy because they are always laughing, yet; upon closer observation there are deeper issues occurring.

At times, people may giggle at the end of their sentences. This giggling gives a subliminal psychological effect of avoiding conflict by telling the listener, “I’m frightened of conflict, so please don’t take seriously anything I say, lest you be offended by it and want to challenge me.”

Giggling often indicates regressive behaviour, more noticeably in women. Are we afraid to assert ourselves? Have we taken on the ‘nice’ or little girl role, laughing unconsciously at our partner’s or other’s actions just to avoid real or perceived conflict or merely to be liked?

We’ve heard the saying, ‘there’s a grain of truth in every joke.’ Well, it is true. For example, in the comment, “Oops, I almost spilled my coffee on you. Tee-hee,” the laughter is used to disguise an aggressive impulse or unconscious desire. Thus, the laughter reveals the truth – the person would very much like to spill coffee over another. Sarcasm works in a similar way and is not a form of humour – rather, it is a form of aggression.

Whether sarcasm or giggling, our work is to become aware of what we are indirectly saying instead of ‘using our words’ in more assertive ways. We can also respectfully ask others, “Tell me what you really think.”

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.