Summary: Finding humor in life can help to improve happiness and reduce stress.
According to the 2019 Gallup Global Emotions Report, people around the world are becoming angrier, stressed and worried.
Recent research published by Frontiers provides some simple tools for redress – including a 20 minute nature pill to rapidly reduce stress hormone levels, and a brain training app that can help us to cope with the distractions of modern life.
Now a special article collection published in Frontiers in Psychology explores the mood benefits of fostering our innate capacity for levity, in whichever situation we find ourselves.
Professor Willibald Ruch explains why he and fellow psychologists Dr. Tracey Platt, Prof. René Proyer and Prof. Hsueh-Chih Chen launched this Research Topic, and some of the ways we all can benefit from a “life of lightness”.
Humor and laughter, playfulness and cheerfulness
The Editors set their contributors the happy task of mapping the relationships between laughter, humor, playfulness and cheerfulness.
“Research in each of these fields would profit from starting to talk to each other, seeing overlaps in scope, finding common structure and common language, and developing overarching theories,” says Ruch.
“Our 33 articles do indeed push the field further – describing new dimensions of humor, how they relate to cheerfulness, playfulness and other traits, and ways to assess them across cultures.”
Besides providing a rallying point for “positive psychology” research, Ruch highlights two practical outcomes from the Topic.
We could all benefit from some comedic training
In a week when Ukraine has elected President the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, Ruch suggests that we all – whatever our life situation – might benefit from some comedic training.
“We know that carers and health professionals with a propensity for benevolent humor can enrich the health and lives – even the deaths – of those in their charge well beyond even the best care alone. But humor as a quality that can be trained and developed has potential not only to increase wellbeing in those with an illness or disability, but all of us.
“Within this collection, one pilot intervention demonstrated encouraging evidence that humor training in healthy individuals can have a stable, long-lasting impact on increasing positive aﬀective states and reducing levels of stress, depressiveness and anxiety. This study also reported a relatively low attrition rate, which would suggest that participants were enjoying themselves, whilst having an overall positive impact on their mental health.”
Humor training might even be a way to tackle some of the downsides of humor.
“While many of us revel in laughter, some are threatened by it. But another study shows that gelotophilia – lack of embarrassment and even enjoyment of being laughed at – is supported by ﬂuency and quality of humor creation abilities.”
We can do more to foster a life of lightness from an early age
Of course, cultivating humor from an early age is likely to yield even greater benefits.
With playfulness considered the basis of humor – a play with ideas – that also seems to contribute to creativity and academic achievement, an emerging question is how teachers, schools and societies in general may beneﬁt from playfulness in the classroom.
“One analysis shows that kindergarten teachers react diﬀerently – more negatively – toward playfulness expressed by boys than by girls. In contrast, playfulness in girls did not seem to be a concern for the teachers,” notes Ruch.
This matters because based on these perceptions, teachers might shape the playfulness, and thus the wellbeing and development, of their students.
“Another pilot study examining the interplay of playfulness in teachers and their students does indeed indicate that teacher behavior impacts children’s playfulness.”
Ultimately, the wellbeing and other benefits of humor training and classroom playfulness will need to be confirmed with further research.
Humor and Laughter, Playfulness and Cheerfulness: Upsides and Downsides to a Life of Lightness
This research topic brings together the four research areas of humor, laughter, playfulness, and cheerfulness. There are partial overlaps among these phenomena. Humor may lead to laughter but not all laughter is related to humor. Playfulness is considered the basis of humor (a play with ideas), but not all play is humorous. Cheerfulness is considered the temperamental basis of good humor, a disposition for laughter and for keeping humor in face of adversity but it mostly overlaps with the socio-affective component of humor. Laughter was considered a play signal and to indicate the annulment of seriousness, but there is play without laughter and laughter outside of play. Cheerfulness might facilitate play and cheerful state might be raised due to play but again the conceptual overlap is only partial. They all contribute to levity in life and their apparent similarity suggests studying them together to map out the territory; i.e., to see where they overlap and what is specific. While these traits and behaviors have the potential to contribute to a good life, there is the danger of overlooking their non-virtuous facets; that is, laughter may not only be expressing amusement but scorn directed at people, humor may be benevolent but there is also sarcasm, and playfulness may elicit positive emotions but also risk prone behaviors. While this research topic solicited articles to these four domains without the aim to connect them, a few articles did and it is expected that growing together will be one outcome of this compilation of articles.
Currently, these fields are studied mostly in isolation. A literature search (using the psychology database of Web of Science Core Collection from 1900, 06.08.2018) yielded that humor is clearly leading in terms of number of publications (n = 3,006), followed by laughter (n = 1,412), playful(ness) (n = 629), and cheerful(ness) (n = 204). As a comparison, antonyms were studied as well, and yielded higher numbers, such as for crying (n = 1640), serious-mindedness (or seriousness) (n = 892), and sadness (n = 3,654). The latter indicates that sadness is 18 times more frequently researched than cheerfulness.
Next, the frequency of articles combining terms was investigated. Combinations of humor and one of the other key terms are rather infrequent with the exception of “humor and laughter” (n = 454), suggesting that about 10% of all articles on humor also refer to laughter. Humor and playfulness (n = 59) and humor and cheerfulness (n = 53) represent only 2% of all articles on humor, and these numbers are still much higher than any combination among the other three. This clearly shows that work is needed integrating these areas to examine how the concepts overlap both regarding their defining substance but also in predicting third variables. It should be mentioned that in a pioneering publication preceding the renaissance of empirical humor research three of the keywords were considered together. Toronto-based English psychologist (Berlyne, 1969) gave an account of laughter, humor, and play in a chapter in a handbook of social psychology. The compilation of research in the four fields is aimed at deepening our understanding of these concepts and stimulating research combining them.