Everybody loves to laugh, that much is clear. Sometimes, a good comedy, a funny book or TV show is all one needs to de-stress after a hard day at work, and regain a more positive attitude towards the future.
But could it be that all comedy does is distract us from the disagreeable aspects of our lives, leaving us ill-equipped to actually deal with them? That’s what Lisa Kugler and Christof Kuhgandner from the Regensburg University wanted to find out with their new study, published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The sense of relief we get after a hearty laugh is nothing to worry about in itself, but if the lightness that comes after impairs our memories, making us forget what it was that we were upset about, this could be a problem.
If, on the other hand, the value of comedy comes from reappraisal – i.e. gaining a different perspective on the upsetting event, while remaining fully engaged with it – memory should be left intact, and humour would seem like a fairly good way to deal with heartache after a distressing episode.
In order to find out which of the two possibilities is closer to the truth, Kugler and Kuhgandner performed an experiment, which compared comedy with a form of “rational reappraisal”, or a technique designed to help the distressed person detach from whatever caused his/her sad affect and evaluate it in a logical way.
To this end, 63 undergraduate students were asked to look at a set of emotionally-charged, negative pictures with either a reassuring or a jokey sentence underneath it. The students rated how negative or positive they found each image, and whether they felt emotionally aroused by it or not, and then, a few minutes later, they had to note down details of as many of the pictures as they could remember.
Results showed that those who received their share of negative images with a dose of humorous comments found the images less depressing than the rest – it seems, then, that comedy is good at soothing a troubled mind. No surprises there. But what about memory?
Luckily, the first group came out on top again – these students were able to describe the pictures more vividly and with more detail than their counterparts who saw them mediated by reassuring, yet emotionally distant observations.
Fascinating as these findings are, we should probably refrain from making too much of them, however. For obvious reasons, the study set-up was rather restricted – looking at slightly unpleasant images in a lab is certainly not the same as finding oneself in painful real-life situations. What’s more, the rational reappraisal process in the study was more passive than in real life: it’s far easier, but perhaps less effective, to read a pithy picture caption, compared to finding a sober way to re-evaluate our actual day-today trials and tribulations.
On the other hand, the study might have actually underestimated the power of laughter, as most people usually experience it in a social setting – it could even be that just hearing someone else laugh is soothing in and of itself.
Despite these shortcomings and current lack of further studies, though, it seems safe to say that comedy is, if nothing else, harmless and likely a useful tool in dealing with everyday blues.