Humor is a coping strategy that enables us to reevaluate and reappraise stressful events as less threatening using comedic or amusing thoughts and language. This alternate perspective creates the opportunity to use a form of storytelling to acknowledge and alleviate the impact of feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety, anger or pain (Dowling, 2002).

Comedy and laughter are incredibly powerful healing tools. Humor can help us see challenges in life as opportunities instead. We can use it to defuse tension that arises from feelings of aggression or nervousness and use it to put ourselves and others at ease. It can offer a distraction from unpleasant circumstances, increase interpersonal cooperation and build warm, healthy connections. It can also be used to manage feelings of shame or embarrassment (Dowling, 2002).

Evidence shows that humor and laughter are able to improve how our immune system functions and enhance our ability to learn and retain new information (Dowling, 2002).

How to Use Humor

We all have our own natural sense of humor. When working to enhance, or become more comfortable with, that sense of humor, we can begin with a self evaluation. This starts by taking a few minutes to ask ourselves about what has made us laugh in the past.

  • Who do we know that has a sense of humor that we enjoy?
  • What about their humor do we find most enjoyable? 
  • Will we see ourselves differently if we use that type of humor ourselves (Dowling, 2002)?

Now, let's utilize forms of humor that are known to build up self-esteem and self-respect. First is affiliative humor, which is rooted in positivity and inclusion, is designed to build up and enhance interpersonal relationships (Thompson, 2010). This strategy seeks to find a commonality among a group of people, and bring that to light in a way everyone will find funny.

Self-enhancing humor is another approach, where we laugh at ourselves or our situation without demeaning or devaluing ourselves or our experiences (Thompson, 2010). This is the opposite of self-deprecating humor, where we make ourselves, our needs, our traits or our behaviors the butt of the joke.

When engaging with more natural and spontaneous forms of humor, we can emphasize the ironic or amusing parts of our experience, situation or environment. Techniques we can use to accomplish this include acting silly or in unexpected ways, or using exaggerated physical gestures or facial expressions. We can try making funny, surprising or odd faces, or incorporate clever and witty word play related to things we’ve said or heard (Potter, 2020). 

Word play can take the shape of nonsense words or phrases that have a personal or shared meaning with others, or rhyming sequences presented in a humorous tone or a sing-song voice. We may intentionally mispronounce words or phrases, or try to incorporate phrases with multiple meanings. Alternatively, we may identify and verbalize events that are incongruent with present physical or social expectations, and highlight the difference between what was expected and what occurred (Dowling, 2002).

Before Using Humor

Humor should always be used with caution. While making light of experiences and events may help some situations, it can actively harm the self and others if used during moments when sensitivity and reservation is preferred. Before we verbalize humorous thoughts, we should consider our timing and method of delivery. We need to take a moment to think about the circumstances and the people present. Consider how others may receive the statements made and if it may be better to reserve humor internally or save it for another, more appropriate time (Potter, 2020). 

Humor should be avoided entirely in the event of a crisis. During an emergency, humor can take our mental energy away from more important physical needs including shelter and safety. When we use humor in these circumstances, it can indicate that we do not understand or value the situation or the people involved (Dowling, 2002).

Certain topics should be avoided when using humor, as it can validate and encourage thought processes that do not add value at best, and harm ourselves and our relationships with those around us at worst. Sexist, racist, ableist, or religious topics should be avoided for this reason (Dowling, 2002), as should impersonation and ridicule (Potter, 2020).