Depression is a serious mental illness that affects millions of people around the world. It is classified as a mood disorder and may be described as feelings of sadness, loss, or anger that interfere with a person’s everyday activities. People experience depression in different ways and it may interfere with your daily work, resulting in lost time and lower productivity. It can also influence relationships and some chronic health conditions. Depression can be more than a constant state of sadness or feeling “blue.” Depression is more than just that feeling of being low that we experience when things don’t go our way, or when we go through a break-up, or lose a loved one. 

Something we’ve all heard quite often, “laughter is the best medicine”, may not always be true. We often tend to associate humor with happiness and joy. Someone who is humorous and cracks jokes quite often cannot possibly be sad, right? That often seems to be the widely held misconception. Turns out, people with depression do use humor, and they may use it quite often, but the nature of humor that they use seems to differ from their counterparts who do not have depression.

There are four different styles of humor so to speak, affiliative, self-enhancing, aggressive, and self-defeating.

Affiliative humorIndividuals who are high on this dimension engage in witty banter, telling jokes, and say funny things, as a means of facilitating relationships with others and also to reduce interpersonal tensions. They may say funny things about themselves and may not take themselves very seriously; but at the same time, they tend to maintain a sense of self-acceptance. This could very well remind you of that ‘class-clown’ you may have come across at some point in your life. That one person that people are drawn to because of their sense of humor and a jolly and engaging personality. 

Self-enhancing humor Individuals who are high on this dimension tend to have a humorous outlook on life. They maintain such a perspective even when they are faced with stress or adversities. This dimension has been closely linked to the concept of coping humor, where the focus is on the use of humor for the purpose of emotion regulation or as a coping mechanism

Aggressive humor This style of humor involves sarcasm, ridicule, teasing, and putting down. It also involves the use of humor to manipulate others through implying the threat of ridicule. It relates to expressing humor in ways that disregards its potential impact on others. This also includes the humor used in order to bully or shame someone.

Self-defeating humor – This dimension involves doing or saying funny things at one’s own expense, which is usually done for the purpose of winning over other people or to get their approval. Individuals high on this dimension often allow themselves to be the topic of others’ humor; they also tend to laugh along during this process. It has been hypothesized that people engage in this type of humor in order to avoid their underlying negative feelings or to avoid dealing with their problems in a constructive manner.

As you can see from the descriptions of these 4 styles of humor, two of these are adaptive (affiliative and self-enhancing), and two are maladaptive (aggressive and self-defeating). It may not come as a surprise when you read that people with depression have more of a tendency to use the maladaptive styles of humor more often than people without depression. Contrarily, people without depression often use the adaptive styles of humor to a greater extent than do people without depression. Scoring high on the two adaptive humor styles has been linked with various positive health outcomes, such as being happier and having healthier relationships. On the other hand, having high scores on the maladaptive humor styles can have a negative effect on one’s health.

This pattern of humor usage, and the differences between its use when comparing people with and without depression, may not be seen in all cases. This pattern can be heavily influenced by culture. For example, in a collectivistic society, such as in India, the use of maladaptive humor is less in general since the community is given more importance over the individual. In comparison, the use of maladaptive humor is seen more in individualistic societies where the individual is generally given more importance. 

The causes for this difference in the use of humor, in cases where it is seen, however, are still unclear. Sigmund Freud theorized that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from some kind of anxiety. His theory seems to be in line with what has been described as the ‘sad clown paradox’, that sees a link between comedy, and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. This paradox states that comedic performers are characterized by feelings of deprivation and isolation in their early lives, where comedy evolves as a release for tension, removing feelings of suppressed physical rage through a verbal outlet. Laughter has been shown to decrease the secretion of the stress hormone, serum cortisol.

It has also been theorized that humor can leave people with a feeling of control over a situation in which they would otherwise be powerless. Although, this difference in the use of humor may very well be connected to a lack of self-esteem that seems to accompany depression. A lack of self-esteem may push these people to use a lot more self-defeating humor, which involves a lot of deprecating or insulting of the self. Other possible explanations that have also been suspected are that people suffering from depression choose to use more negative styles of humor and not try to improve their situation by using a more positive humor style, which in turn maintains their condition; Or perhaps using a negative humor style is influencing depression. The third and likely possibility is that certain factors (both genetic and environmental) affect depression and the use of maladaptive styles of humor, but more research is needed on this topic.


How does this information help you?

Signs of depression may not always be obvious. People suffering from depression may often internalize it, and show very few and subtle signs of it externally. Thus, you can start paying attention to the kind of humor that you and the people around you have been using. Doing so may be an indicator toward recognizing signs of depression and then further seeking professional mental health services if required.


How can this information help the process of therapy?

The goal of therapy is to make clients independent and provide them with tools to help them cope well in their daily life, even after the termination of therapy. People in therapy can be equipped to use more adaptive styles of humor during the process of therapy, which can be a useful tool for coping that can be used in daily life outside of therapy. If used with caution, humor can be a powerful tool in enhancing relationships, including a therapeutic one. 

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