I find that when I’m angry, it helps to find something to laugh about. Is that true or am I just fooling myself?
Chances are you are right that the humor is helping you in those situations. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that humor and laughter are important coping mechanisms that can help people deal with a variety of psychosocial problems. First, though, it’s important to understand a little bit about what people find funny and why they laugh.
Humor is a particularly difficult concept to discuss and study for a variety of reasons. First, there are substantial differences with regard to what people find funny. Many types of jokes (e.g., puns, ethnic jokes, dirty jokes, slapstick) are not appreciated by everyone or even most people. Second, context matters greatly in that various aspects of the situation (e.g., who told the joke, the location, the circumstances) influence whether or not someone perceives something as funny. Consequently, something that would be considered hilarious in one situation may not be funny at all in another. Due to all of this, identifying the important elements of humor has been a challenge.
Ultimately, one of the best definitions of humor comes, not from a psychologist but from the author, George Orwell. Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay, Funny, but Not Vulgar, that “a thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order.” To put this in psychological terms, people find something to be funny when it is surprises them, forces them to think about things in a new way, and when they perceive it as edgy or daring. However, once something moves past the threshold from edgy to “offensive or frightening”, it is no longer funny.
What does all this mean for anger? Well, it means that people can use humor to change their mood and to think about things in a new light. By no means is this a new idea. In fact, Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, one of psychology’s leading anger researchers, wrote of the importance of humor in his 1995 book chapter, Ideal Treatment Package for Adults with Anger Disorders. In the chapter, published in Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment, Deffenbacher argues that using humor with clients might actually be considered a cognitive intervention, similar to cognitive restructuring where clients evaluate the types of thoughts they have which might be leading them to experience more anger. He suggests that, as part of cognitive restructuring, clients should try to rethink things in silly or humorous ways. However, he is quick to point out that anger is not always the answer and, if people use it, they should make sure it is (a) silly rather than hostile or sarcastic and (b) not designed to laugh off problems but “to take a brief cognitive step backward, perhaps laughing at themselves and their cognitions, to reduce their anger and then approach the situation again” (p. 169).
The next question, though, is why does humor work in reducing anger? There are actually a couple of simple reasons for the psychosocial benefits of humor.
Incompatible Mood States. Humor seems to decrease anger because, to some degree, the psychological state of finding something funny is incompaible with the psychological state of anger. In other words, it’s hard to be angry while, simultaneously, finding something funny. Even if it is just for a brief instant, when someone finds something funny and laughs, their anger has dissipated somewhat. This is actually very similar to the rationale for why relaxation is so valuable in treating both anger and anxiety. One cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. It is also why humor has been found to be such an effective coping mechanism for so many negative psychological states (e.g., stress, fear, sadness). Of course, as described by Deffenbacher, certain types of humor like sarcasm are less valuable because they do not necessarily lead to a different mood state but rather serve as an aggressive means of expressing anger.
Conflict Management. Humor has long been used as a conflict management strategy. It serves to lighten the mood, put others at ease, facilitate communication of difficult and angering topics, and even to help in the delivery of bad news. In fact, people laugh more often at something they say than at something said by someone else. It is not so much that they find what they are saying to be funny. It is that laughter can convey the lightheartedness that might be necessary to decrease tension and anger in a particularly challenging interpersonal situation.
Cognitive Shifting. Finally, as described by both Deffenbacher and Orwell, humor represents a different way of looking at things. When people get angry, it’s because they perceive the situation as unfair, unjustified, etc. Humor allows people to think about the provocation in a new light and, potentially, one that is less angering. Likewise, it also allows the angry person to think of themselves and their angering thoughts in a new way. When highly emotional, people sometimes think unreasonable, unrealistic, and, frankly, silly things. Taking time to recognize the silliness of your recent thought that the person in the car in front of you is a total idiot or that not being able to find your car keys ruined the entire day can help give you some much needed perspective and help you cope with frustrating situations.