Sunday, March 19, 2017

In defense of humor.

Do you love to laugh? For decades, psychologists have studied the role of positive emotions in health and well-being. So far, it’s pretty clear that positive emotional experiences, including those that make you laugh, are related to better emotional and physical health. Yet, very few of those studies can make causal claims. In other words, they don’t really tell us whether healthier people seek out humor or whether laughter causes better health. Recently, Sarah Wellenzohn, University of Zurich, and colleagues set out to test the causal role of humor in the emotional health of individuals. In short, they designed an experiment to answer the question:  

Does humor increase happiness and decrease symptoms of depression?

To do this, they randomly assigned 632 adults to 1 of 6 interventions to complete daily for 1 week. The interventions were:  

Three funny things: Write down the 3 funniest things you experienced during the day and your feelings during those experiences.
Collecting funny things: Remember 1 of the funniest things you have experienced in the past, write it down with the most possible detail.
Counting funny things: Count all of the funny things that happen throughout the day and write down the number.
Applying humor: Notice the humor experienced throughout the day and add new humorous activities, such as reading comics, telling jokes, watching funny movies.
Solving stressful situations in a humorous way: Think about a stressful experience today and think about how it was or could have been solved in a funny way.
Early memories (placebo control): Write about early memories.

Before starting the intervention, participants completed questionnaires measuring their authentic happiness and symptoms of depression. Authentic happiness is measured using participant agreement to 24 statements such as “My life is filled with joy.”  Depressive symptoms include sad or low mood, loss of interest or pleasure, appetite and weight change, sleep problems, worry, difficulty concentrating, or feelings of hopelessness. Participants also received training in the intervention and were instructed to do their intervention activity each day for one week.

At the end of the 1-week intervention, and then 1-, 3-, and 6-months after completing the intervention, participants again completed the happiness and depression questionnaires. This enabled the research team to look at whether humor interventions led to increases in happiness and declines in depressive symptoms, and also look at how durable those effects are over time.

At the end of 1 week, all of the humor-based interventions were associated with increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms compared to the placebo group. So one important take home message is that humor helps, no matter how you incorporate it into your life.

With respect to increasing happiness, Counting funny things and Applying humor were the most effective, and those effects lasted for up to 6 months! The effects of the Three funny things intervention also lasted through the 6-month time period, but were not as robust. There are a number of reasons that these humor-based interventions had such long-lasting effects on happiness. Most likely, it was because participants continued to engage in the behaviors for longer than just the initial week. Positive emotions are addictive in the same way food and drugs are. So it’s possible that these 1-week interventions were enough to promote a humor-addiction, so to speak.

The effects of these interventions on depressive symptoms were not as durable. Despite all of the humor-based interventions being leading to reductions in depressive symptoms at the end of the 1-week intervention compared with the placebo group, none of these effects remained 3-months after the intervention. This finding isn’t too surprising since there were no individuals with depression in this study. In fact, 250 people were excluded from the study for having elevated symptoms of depression at the baseline assessment. This means that there was very little range in depressive symptoms in the sample to begin with, and thus very little chance that the intervention could have an effect at all. That being said, humor on its own is unlikely to be an effective treatment for depression. Depression is an illness; often initiated in the wake of a major life stressor. With the exception of Solving stressful situations in a funny way, none of the humor-based interventions offered skills that help manage the source of that life stress.

The authors argue that one of the important, active ingredients in humor is the focus on increasing positive emotions in the present moment. Each intervention, particularly the durable ones, accomplished that through increasing daily experiences that involved humor but also increasing individuals’ attention to those experiences over time. You can imagine that just a few days of Counting funny things would cause you to pay more attention to, and enjoy, when funny things are occurring.

Until next time, keep on laughing! Here’s a compilation of funny videos of kids learning about physics:

Wellenzohn, S., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2016). Humor-based online positive psychology interventions: A randomized placebo-controlled long-term trial. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(6), 584-594.

*Many thanks to for the gorgeous photos. 


  1. Happiness can help us in many ways and can lessen the size of depression that we use to have, secondly this is really a good guide on this topic. Great share!

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