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Studying Humour – International Journal

Vol. 1 (2014)

The contribution of humor in our lives


Dr Kounti-Zafeiropoulou Fotini
Cognitive Neuropsychologist, AUTh

Abstract
Humor is a perceptual event connected with one’s sense of self, an expression of a uniquely
human capacity to adapt to experiences and situations that may be possible sources of humor.
Humor seems to be a powerful coping mechanism used to decrease fear, anxiety, and
psychological stress. The appreciation of humor requires a wide area of neural circuits
covering attention, working memory, flexible thinking, extraction of word meaning, and
positive mood. The cognitive component of humor, which is probably mediated by the
dorsolateral cortex, may deteriorate with aging. Laughter and smiling as communication tools
may be lost in the early stages of dementia, when the clinical symptoms of dementia appear.
The use of humor therapy appears to be an effective non pharmacological intervention
contributing to significant increases in happiness and life satisfaction for the elderly people

L'umorismo è un evento percettivo collegato al proprio senso dell'io, espressione di una


capacità unicamente umana di adattarsi alle esperienze e alle situazioni che possono
essere possibili fonti di umorismo. L'umorismo sembra essere un potente meccanismo di
coping usato per diminuire la paura, l'ansia e lo stress psicologico. L'apprezzamento
dell'umorismo richiede una vasta area di circuiti neurali che coprano l'attenzione, la
memoria di lavoro, il pensiero flessibile, l'estrazione del significato delle parole e l'umore
positivo. La componente cognitiva dell'umorismo, che è probabilmente mediata dalla
corteccia dorsolaterale, può deteriorarsi con l'invecchiamento. Risate e sorrisi come
strumenti di comunicazione possono essere persi nelle prime fasi della demenza, quando
compaiono i sintomi clinici della demenza. L'uso della terapia dell'umorismo sembra
essere un efficace intervento non farmacologico che contribuisce a un aumento
significativo della felicità e della soddisfazione della vita per gli anziani

Parole chiave:

Key words: humor therapy, laughter, aging, dementia


Studying Humour – International Journal
Vol. 1 (2014)

Humor is a perceptual event connected with one’s sense of self, an expression of a


uniquely human capacity to adapt to experiences and situations that may be possible sources
of humor. Humor has been described as a sudden shift in cognitive perspective (Martin, &
Lefcourt, 1983). The following are three major theories of humor: (a) the superiority theory,
which claims that people laugh at the misfortune of others to feel superior; (b) the incongruity
theory, which claims that a sudden shock or conflict can provoke laughter; and (c) the release
theory, which claims that the purpose of humor is to provide relief from tension and social
conflict (Wilkins, & Eisenbraun, 2009). People can experience humor and pleasure even
when facing adversity and humor can distract our attention from stressful events. Cognitive
shifts produced by humor help people to return to previous negative thoughts with a fresh
new look. Moreover, Talbot and Lumden (2000) suggested that the use of humor could
prevent burnout and create resiliency to stress, thus reducing its negative impact. Nilsen
(1993) indicated that a positive change could be promoted in the work space, using humor.
Promoting the well-being of employees should increase organizational productivity and
profitability (Keyes, Hysom, & Lupo, 2000).
L'umorismo è un evento percettivo collegato al proprio senso dell'io, espressione di
una capacità unicamente umana di adattarsi alle esperienze e alle situazioni che possono
essere possibili fonti di umorismo. L'umorismo è stato descritto come un improvviso
cambiamento di prospettiva cognitiva (Martin, & Lefcourt, 1983). Le seguenti sono tre
principali teorie dell'umorismo: (a) la teoria della superiorità, che afferma che le persone
ridono della sfortuna degli altri per sentirsi superiori; (b) la teoria dell'incongruenza, che
afferma che uno shock improvviso o un conflitto possono provocare risate; e (c) la teoria del
rilascio, che afferma che lo scopo dell'umorismo è quello di fornire sollievo dalla tensione e
dal conflitto sociale (Wilkins, & Eisenbraun, 2009). Le persone possono provare umorismo e
piacere anche quando affrontano avversità e umorismo possono distrarre la nostra attenzione
da eventi stressanti. I cambiamenti cognitivi prodotti dall'umore aiutano le persone a tornare
ai precedenti pensieri negativi con un nuovo look. Inoltre, Talbot e Lumden (2000) hanno
suggerito che l'uso dell'umorismo potrebbe impedire il burnout e creare resilienza allo stress,
riducendo così il suo impatto negativo. Nilsen (1993) ha indicato che un cambiamento
positivo potrebbe essere promosso nello spazio di lavoro, usando l'umorismo. Promuovere il
benessere dei dipendenti dovrebbe aumentare la produttività e la redditività
dell'organizzazione (Keyes, Hysom e Lupo, 2000).

Peterson and Seligman (2004) introduced a classification of 24 strengths of character


(with humor being one of them) that are composed to six universal virtues. The strengths are
thought to be the underlying processes and mechanisms that are needed to exert or display a
virtue. A potential strength is transcendence that forges connections to the larger universe and
provides meaning in life. The virtues yielding from transcendence are: Appreciation of beauty
and excellence (noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in
all domains of life), Gratitude (being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen),
Hope (expecting the best and working to achieve it), Humor (liking to laugh and joke;
bringing smiles to other people), and Religiousness (having coherent beliefs about the higher
purpose and meaning of life). Humor is present in every day social life, and what is amusing
varies widely among individuals, societies, and cultures. Everyone enjoys laughing, but a
misjudged humorous comment can cause offense, so although laughter is almost always
positive, humor itself can provoke mixed or unexpected emotional reactions.
Studying Humour – International Journal
Vol. 1 (2014)

Peterson e Seligman (2004) hanno introdotto una classificazione di 24 punti di forza


del carettere (con l'umorismo che è uno di loro) che sono composti da sei virtù universali. Si
pensa che i punti di forza siano i processi e i meccanismi sottostanti necessari per esercitare o
mostrare una virtù. Una forza potenziale è la trascendenza che forgia le connessioni con
l'universo più grande e fornisce un significato nella vita. Le virtù che derivano dalla
trascendenza sono: Apprezzamento della bellezza e dell'eccellenza (notare e apprezzare la
bellezza, l'eccellenza e / o le prestazioni qualificate in tutti i campi della vita), Gratitudine
(essere consapevole e riconoscente delle cose buone che accadono), Speranza (aspettandosi il
meglio e il lavoro per raggiungerlo), Umorismo (simpatia per ridere e scherzare, portare
sorrisi alle altre persone) e religiosità (avere credenze coerenti riguardo lo scopo e il
significato della vita più elevati). L'umorismo è presente nella vita sociale di ogni giorno e ciò
che è divertente varia molto tra individui, società e culture. Tutti si divertono a ridere, ma un
commento umoristico mal giudicato può causare offesa, quindi anche se la risata è quasi
sempre positiva, l'umorismo stesso può provocare reazioni emotive miste o inaspettate.

Miller’s study (2000) confirmed three predictions derived from a sexual selection
model of humor: 1. intelligence predicts humor ability, 2. humor ability predicts mating
success, and 3. males show higher average humor ability. Further analysis identified that
humor ability affecting intelligence contributes to mating success, suggesting that intelligence
accompanied by verbal humor could be sexually attractive (Smith, Waldorf, & Trembath,
1990. Sprecher, & Regan, 2002).

Wooten (1992) divided therapeutic humor into three categories: hoping, coping, and
gallows humor. Hoping humor enables us to hope for something better in spite of difficult
circumstances. Coping humor helps to change the way we think and regain a sense of control
on our life. Gallows humor recognizes intolerable aspects of a situation and helps us to
transform it into something tolerable.

Although much has been written about the use of humor as a therapeutic tool, humor
physiology is a young science (Berk, 2001. Fry, 1992). Physical benefits of humor have been
compared to aerobic exercise (Berk, 2001). It is suggested that humor enables people to have
a stronger tolerance of pain (Weisenberg, Tepper, & Schwarzwald, 1995). It is a powerful
coping mechanism used to decrease fear, anxiety, and psychological stress. Moreover, it
seems that it has the power to improve the ability to cope with disease (Berk, 2001. Johnson,
2002. Kuiper, Grimshaw, Leite, & Kirsh, 2004) and to produce hope in stressful situations
(Westburg, 2003).

Lo studio di Miller (2000) ha confermato tre pronostici derivati da un modello di


umorismo di selezione sessuale: 1. l'intelligenza predice la capacità di umorismo, 2. la
capacità di umorismo predice il successo dell'accoppiamento e 3. i maschi mostrano una
maggiore capacità di umorismo medio. Ulteriori analisi hanno identificato che la capacità di
umorismo che influenza l'intelligenza contribuisce al successo dell'accoppiamento,
suggerendo che l'intelligenza accompagnata da umorismo verbale potrebbe essere
sessualmente attraente (Smith, Waldorf e Trembath, 1990. Sprecher, & Regan, 2002).

Wooten (1992) ha diviso l'umorismo terapeutico in tre categorie: di speranza, di


coping, e l'umore della forca. Lo humor di speranza ci permetta di sperare in qualcosa di
meglio nonostante le circostanze difficili. Coping humor aiuta a cambiare il modo in cui
Studying Humour – International Journal
Vol. 1 (2014)
pensiamo e riottenere un senso di controllo sulla nostra vita. L'umorismo della forca
riconosce gli aspetti intollerabili di una situazione e ci aiuta a trasformarla in qualcosa di
tollerabile.

Sebbene sia stato scritto molto sull'uso dell'umorismo come strumento terapeutico, la
fisiologia dell'umorismo è una scienza giovane (Berk, 2001. Fry, 1992). I benefici fisici
dell'umorismo sono stati paragonati all'esercizio aerobico (Berk, 2001). Si suggerisce che
l'umorismo consenta alle persone di avere una maggiore tolleranza al dolore (Weisenberg,
Tepper, & Schwarzwald, 1995). È un potente meccanismo di coping usato per diminuire la
paura, l'ansia e lo stress psicologico. Inoltre, sembra che abbia il potere di migliorare la
capacità di affrontare la malattia (Berk, 2001. Johnson, 2002. Kuiper, Grimshaw, Leite, &
Kirsh, 2004) e di produrre speranza in situazioni stressanti (Westburg, 2003).

Johnson (2002) described humor’s positive influence on spirituality and coping in


breast cancer. As survivors searched for meaning in their illness, some felt that humor helped
them to laugh at themselves and at life. A new field of science is Psychoneuroimmunology
(PNI). It started from a multifactorial model of illness, which included stress, coping and
disease formation. This theory was further developed by Solomon (1987) to include the
impact of stress on the immune system in disease formation. Later, the term
‘psychoneuroimmunology’ was coined by Ader and Cohen to describe the basic phenomena
of this theory: interactions between the nervous system and the immune system, and the
subsequent effects of these interactions upon disease development/progression.

PNI researchers have repeatedly identified that increased stress levels can lead to
changes in psychological and physiological functioning. In addition to changes in the usual
stress hormones such as ACTH, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, many other
messengers are influenced by exposure to stressful events. Production and release of
prolactin, growth hormone, insulin, glucagon, thyroid hormone and gonadotrophin can be
affected by physical and emotional stress (Curtis, 1979). Levels of neurotransmitters,
neurohormones, cytokines and various cells in the immune system can also be affected by
stress. However, more research is needed to determine how these neurological changes
subsequently affect the physiological response to stressors, and possibly improve immune
functioning.

The laughter is the physical product of humor perception and recognition. There is a
growing body of evidence that supports the health benefits of laughter (Berk, 2001. Mahoney,
Burroughs, & Lippman, 2002. Martin, 2001), such as increases in the number and activity of
natural killer cells, activated T cells, IgA antibodies, and gamma interferon and a decrease in
stress hormones. Significant increases in mood have been demonstrated even when the
laughter was forced without any preceding humorous stimuli (Foley, Matheis, & Schaefer,
2002). Humor has been shown to increase lung capacity and strengthen abdominal muscles.

The appreciation of humor requires a wide area of neural circuits covering attention,
working memory, flexible thinking, extraction of word meaning, and positive mood. Good
humor makes people laugh just like pain makes people cry, but humor requires complex
neural circuits. Humor is perceived at the beginning as surprise or disharmony, then the
paradox is solved, and, finally, the punch line is understood in association with a pleasant
feeling (Takeda, et al., 2010).
Studying Humour – International Journal
Vol. 1 (2014)
The “frontal aging hypothesis” suggests that the prefrontal cortex is particularly
vulnerable to the effects of aging (Tisserand, & Jolles, 2003) and implies that functions
Studying Humour – International Journal
Vol. 1 (2014)

supported by the frontal lobes will be disproportionately impaired. This hypothesis is based
on age-related alterations in the volume of the frontal cortex (Tisserand, et al., 2002). The
cognitive component of humor, which is probably mediated by the dorsolateral cortex, may
deteriorate with aging. Mentalizing refers to the ability to reason about mental states,
including beliefs and intentions, and may be mediated by medial frontal structures (Stuss, et
al., 2001). Mentalizing may thus provide a separate route to humor processing, independent
of executive skills. Studies investigating mentalizing in normal aging have produced mixed
findings, with some suggesting it to be unaffected (Saltzman, et al., 2000), and others
indicating age-related decline (Sullivan, & Ruffman, 2004).

Humor is delicate and sensitive by nature. It can be properly appreciated when it is


expressed in the right time, right place, and on the right occasion. Confidence, or trust,
between the sender and receiver is an important aspect of humor. Establishing this trust is a
prerequisite for the introduction of appropriately timed humor. No humor can be appreciated
by patients with dementia, when there is no trust between the patient and care staff (Takeda,
et al., 2010. Chapple, & Ziebland, 2004). Dementia patients lose the ability to laugh and
smile as the disease progresses. Laughter and smiling as communication tools may be lost in
the early stages of dementia, when the clinical symptoms of dementia appear. Of the different
forms of laughter and smiling associated with pleasant feelings, those induced by disharmony
may be lost in early stages of dementia because of the cognitive impairment that may limit a
patient's understanding. However, laughter and smiling induced by feelings of superiority,
fulfillment of expectations, and fulfillment of instinctive needs are preserved until the
advanced stages of dementia. Laughter and smiling in response to a release of tension are
preserved in most dementia patients (Takeda, et al., 2010).

Wooten (2005) explored humorous communication within the lives of older adults by
testing the relationships among humor, coping efficacy, age, and life satisfaction. Results
overall indicate these four variables function through complex paths of communication in the
elderly. As predicted, humor-oriented individuals were more likely to use humor as a coping
mechanism and reported greater coping efficacy. As predicted by Folkman and Lazarus's
transactional theory of coping and emotion, the relationship between self-reported humor
orientation and life satisfaction was mediated by coping efficacy. In attempting to determine
which variables best predicted life satisfaction, coping efficacy and health status explained
unique variance in life satisfaction scores. The use of humor therapy appears to be an
effective non pharmacological intervention (Mimi, et al., 2010) contributing to significant
increases in happiness and life satisfaction for the elderly people.

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