In Stress and Coping

Is Humour Always Healthy?

Humour is a cognitive ability to recognize comic and amusing elements of the events. The feeling of humour also is linked with the ability to discover the contradictions in the surrounding world.

The word humour is derived from the Ancient Greek idea about medical states of four substances in the human’s body – blood, lymph, yellow and black humors (bile). In the ancient medical community, health and well-being were defined in the frames of these substances.

The psychology of humour has been discussed by Sigmund Freud in his work tiled “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten“ or ”Jokes and their relation to the unconscious” (Engl.) published in 1905. He supposed that humour might be connected like dreams to our unconsciousness. In this book, he defined three types of humour: “jokes”, “comics”, and “parodies”. According to Freud, any joke is born when our consciousness is making an attempt to express the thoughts that the society prohibits or does not consider to be acceptable. Our superego mimicking the desires of our ego allowing to gratify our needs. A kind superego creates a light and relaxing type of humour, while the crueller superego delivers sharp and sarcastic type of humour. In addition, a cruel superego suppresses humour as a phenomenon. Freud’s theory of humour has been based as most of his ideas on the dynamic conflict among the id, ego, and superego, where superego is blocking the ego in gratifying desires of the id to get pleasure. Developing this approach, Freud concluded that psychic energy is storing and gradually increasing, and at a certain period of time it goes out using so called “detour” in order to avoid the “explosion” of emotions. So, according to Freud the wit is an example of such a defence mechanism as sublimation.

In 2000, an evolutionary psychologist Jeffrey Miller suggested that the feeling of humour has been developed in humans in a result of gender differences as a means of demonstrating intellect. This idea became known for the public after the day when his book “The mating mind” came to the light. His colleagues argue that humour serves the males for the purpose to demonstrate their “good” genes to females. In other words, humour is like a peacock’s tail in men.

Independently, upon the theoretical basis of humour that is close your view, researchers distinguish two types of humour, that at the same time consists of two styles, making four styles overall. Like within coping styles, humour types are also divided into adaptive and maladaptive groups. The adaptive styles of humour include facilitative and self-enhancing humour, while maladaptive styles are self-defeating and aggressive humour (Martin et al., 2003). Now, let’s briefly look at each type of humour.

Affiliative humour might be observed when an individual is using jokes as a mean of establishing relationships, amusing other people, or reducing tension.

Self-enhancing humour is seen among those who look at stressful situations from a humorous perspective. This type of humour is a stress coping style.

Aggressive humour includes racist jokes and sarcasm. This type of humour is used by those who do not think about the consequences of their jokes, and mainly focus on the entertainment of the listeners.

Self-defeating humour is used as a mean of social acceptance through hiding inner negative feelings.

As you understand, each of these types differently influence your psychological and overall subjective well-being. Empirically it has been proven that high levels of humour types that fall into the adaptive group are correlated with higher self-esteem, lower levels of depression and anxiety, and more positive self-competency judgments. In opposite, humour types included in the maladaptive group are associated with poorer overall psychological well-being, predicting detrimental effects related to higher levels of anxiety and depression (Kuiper et al.., 2004).


Kuiper, Grimshaw, Leite., & Kirsh (2004). Humor is not always the best medicine: Specific components of sense of humor and psychological well-being. International Journal of Humor Research, 17, 135–168.

Martin, R. A. (2001). Humor, laughter, and physical health: Methodological issues and research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 127(4), 504-519.


An extract from my upcoming book Stress and Health: What you need to know for our well-being. No part of this post may be reproduced, stored in a retrieved system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission from me.

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