Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Beyond content: Does using humor help coping?

Carmen C. Moran
School of Social Work
University of New South Wales
UNSW Sydney 2052
E-mail: c.moran@unsw.edu.au


To many, the focus of any relationship between humor and disability will be on discourse analysis and power relations, and necessitate an analysis of humor material (e.g. jokes, movies). Such a focus can give rise to numerous points of debate about the content of humor and factors that determine when content is "appropriate." Some of these points were raised in the debate entitled "Humor and political correctness" in the journal Humor. In that debate the following questions were discussed: Is humor uncomplicated, but made complicated by intellectuals who want to own humor discourse? Is humor more frequently offensive and harmful or harmless and fun? Does humor need a target to work so we can enjoy the "shock of recognition" of our stereotypes? Does humor make us feel superior because of its inherent aggression? Does humor make us feel superior because we feel morally superior to the joke teller? Does humor have the capacity to make a group appear worse if we keep hearing jokes about them? Do jokes always reflect the attitude of the teller? To what extent does intent behind the joke make even the most disparaging jokes acceptable? (Lewis, 1997).

While these and related questions about humor content are undoubtedly important and interesting, they are not the focus of this paper. A restricted focus on text would suggest all humor is verbal and written, and analysis could become limited to jokes about disability. This paper considers the relevance of humor as a coping strategy, and while the text of the humor is important to such a discussion, it is only part of it. Importantly, not all humor used by people with disabilities will be about disability per se. Consider the joke cited in Tom Shakespeare (1999, p. 51) :

Q: "What do computers and social workers have in common?"
A: "You have to punch information into both of them."

This may be funny to people with disabilities and also others who have experience working with social workers; or it may be equally unfunny to both groups. The point is that humor can be used to express frustration at professional groups and organizations by people from a range of groups, occupations, and circumstances. Having a disability does not mean humor must always function differently. It is worthwhile, therefore, to look at some general views of humor, before returning to the context of disability.

Defining humor in the context of coping

Humor and its effect on coping have been discussed widely in the last decade in a variety of areas in humanities, social sciences and health journals. Much of this literature is based on the assumption that humor helps people cope, and many papers start with this premise and, not surprisingly, this is also their conclusion. This positive view of humor as a coping strategy has been enthusiastically advanced more in some publications (especially nursing and health care journals), than others (e.g., the journal Humor). The commonly stated relationship between laughter and endorphins is an example of the overzealous reporting on humor. This relationship has not yet been reliably established in the research literature. This is not to say research has not found physiological effects of laughter, or humor. There are studies indicating its relationship with lower pain threshold, increased salivary immunoglobulin A, and elevated mood (Lefcourt, 2001; Moran, 2002). Humor, and laughter in particular, may therefore be related to future well being; but not all humor is helpful, not all effects long lasting.

Defining humor is not easy and will not be attempted here. First, there are a vast number of theories on humor and each theoretical position will see humor differently. Second, most definitions of humor are either tautologically or operationally defined. In the former instance we are no closer to a satisfying definition of humor. In the latter instance, it makes for good research but does not help us generalize about humor. Nevertheless, there are some common ways the term humor is used. Humor may be seen as a cognitive style. The term humor may refer to a stimulus factor, such as a joke or alternatively to a response such as laughter. Humor may refer to more complex interactions between individuals and highlight social processes, such as teasing or communication. Humor may be seen as a personality trait, sometimes interpreted as a characteristic that helps people deal with the world. Often the phrase "sense of humor" is used, although this may vary from meaning a person’s ability to generate humor, to laugh at something funny, or to see humor in places where others may not (see Lefcourt, 2001). Obviously, talking about humor can be a cause of confusion when we do not the same thing by the term.

Humor theories

One of the most discussed theories of humor in coping literature is the incongruity theory. The different views of the role of incongruity mean that this is actually a set of theories; nevertheless, there are some common features within this set. Incongruity typically refers to the unexpected association of two normally unrelated or even conflicting contexts (Koestler, 1964; Moran, 2002). The unrelated or conflicting contexts in a joke, for example, can result in a build up of tension but when that context changes or is less threatening than expected, the tension becomes unnecessary and is released as laughter. Two commonly cited exponents of the incongruity view of humor are Kant, who described laughter as an affection that arises if a strained expectation is "suddenly reduced to nothing" (Kant, 1790, p. 538) and Koestler, who referred to humor in terms of a situation that results in "emotion deserted by thought that is discharged in laughter" (Koestler, 1964). Thus, this view sees humor as ultimately unthreatening, because the laughter follows the recognition that the incongruity (dissonance, discomfort, etc.) is now resolved or meaningless, and so any initial threat in the humor is removed.

Latta (1998) argues that when we laugh at the realization of "nothing," it is not the same as recognizing an incongruity. Humor occurs because the circumstances of joke (a witticism etc.) are such that there is a cognitive shift from one context to another and this undermines negative emotional excitation caused by the first context. Moran and Shakespeare-Finch (in press) cite the example of a firefighter who laughs when he realizes a small burnt body at his feet is only a doll. His initial horror, it could be argued, has been undermined when he realizes his initial reaction was for nothing. This is an extreme example. A sudden realization of "nothing" can be found in more mundane situations of slapstick and cartoons where the "victim" gets up to live another day. In these instances we do not seek a cognitive shift we just experience it. In other situations, the humor may be deliberately initiated to evoke a cognitive shift, that is, to remove the focus away from the horror or unhappiness of a situation.

Psychoanalytically oriented theories see humor as a line to repressed emotions, fears and anxieties. Laughter occurs when we are "permitted" access to the source of our repressed emotions in a manner non-threatening to the ego. Humor, and therefore laughter, do not occur because we appreciate a resolution of some incompatibility or incongruity, rather they occur as we gain access to our own impulses. Our psychic censor has temporarily been deceived by the humor. The humor, in one sense, is in us rather than the material. It follows from these theories that people should laugh most at jokes related to their unexpressed impulses. The psychoanalytic view is somewhat confounded by the fact that Freud viewed humor much more positively than many of his followers. Freud described humor as one of the highest forms of psychic defense, and considered it to be a healthy means of dealing with the world (Freud, 1905). The Freudian view of humor is difficult to test because he defined humor (in contrast to wit, for example) as a healthy defense, and therefore debating whether humor assists coping becomes a circular argument.

Research generally does not support the idea that humor requires access to repressed feelings or ideas. Indeed, most research indicates people are more likely to laugh at those things they commonly experience and discuss. Some researchers argue that humor can be a deliberate means of communicating one’s concerns, for example in emergency or health contexts (Moran & Massam, 1997). In the context of disability it would be reasonable to assume personal humor is not a sign of repressed ideas or feelings, but on the contrary, it reflects a full awareness of the circumstances one is facing on regular basis.

One of the best-known proponents of the superiority theories of humor, Thomas Hobbes, believed humor arises as a result of a realization of some superiority in ourselves compared with others or compared with our former selves (Hobbes, 1640). This means we are nearly always laughing at someone else’s expense. The idea that occasionally we may be laughing at ourselves has often been overlooked in discussion of the superiority theories. It should be recognized that Hobbes also acknowledged we do not just laugh at others because we feel superior, we may laugh when we see a failing in others that we had ourselves some time ago, and in this way we are laughing at our former selves. We feel better, or superior, because we realize how far we have come. Superiority theories, therefore, can predict humor as both harmful (to others) and helpful (to ourselves). In these instances, analysis of the content and context becomes central to understanding the function of the humor.

The evolutionary theories of humor consider it as a response that offers some advantage in adverse or threatening circumstances, particularly when escape or other ways of dealing with the situation are not possible (Latta 1998). The current bias in health research towards positive definitions of humor seems to highlight this type of theory. There are biological accompaniments to humor, such as the respiratory patterns that accompany laughter and the electro-cortical changes that accompany "getting the joke." While it is interesting to speculate on the evolutionary nature of these physiological effects, humor must also be understood in terms of its psychological and social features.

Humor and coping

The most commonly discussed individual aspect of humor is usually "sense of humor". Sense of humor refers to "a trait concept associated with an appreciation of humor that may be manifested across a range of behaviors from simply liking humor, to actively encouraging humor, to producing humor in the form of jokes or witticisms" (Moran & Shakespeare-Finch, in press). These characteristics are usually measured on a sense of humor scale. Sense of humor does not always function as an individual trait, however. That is, it may not always seem to be consistent. For example, a person may laugh at the same joke (or other humor stimulus) in one context but not another, or on one day but not another.

Even if sense of humor is not a consistently observed phenomenon, there is a strong tendency to accept the notion of some relatively consistent individual humor disposition that we can call sense of humor. Research evidence suggests this type of dispositional sense of humor may moderate reactions to life stress (Lefcourt & Thomas, 1998). Sense of humor frequently correlates with optimism (Martin, 1996), and it may be this optimism that helps coping. Moran and Massam (1999) have looked at disposition and speculated that different aspects of dispositional humor may help filter in positive or filter out negative information. "Humor bias," defined as the tendency to detect relatedhumor-related stimuli, may be associated with an ability to detect positive aspects in the environment, whereas traditional measures of dispositional "coping humor" may be associated with ability to screen out negative aspects of the environment.

Martin (1998) has dissected sense of humor into cognitive, emotional and motivational dimensions. The cognitive dimension of sense of humor reflects individual differences in perception, creativity and comprehension of potentially humorous material. The emotional dimension refers to individual differences in cheerfulness and playfulness. The motivational dimension reflects individual differences in intentional aspects of humor, such as disparagement or social bonding. In this model, there is no a priori assumption that humor is a healthy and a positive form of coping.

It is frequently assumed that comics and comedians are highly depressed individuals. This is the stereotype of the sad clown. In their study of professional comedians, Fisher and Fisher (1981) did not find any support for the idea that depression lay behind the need or ability to produce humor and they judged their sample as well adjusted as non-comedians. As children, the comedians used their humor to deal with stressful childhood environments, particularly with parental conflict and a distant mother, and it appears to have been a successful coping strategy.

Extraverts are usually rated as having a higher sense of humor, but this may only reflect a tendency to laugh out load loud (Eysenck (1943). Many writers have suggested that humor is really part of a broader disposition towards cheerfulness (e.g., Ruch and Kohler, 1998). Martin (1998) has summarized research relating humor and the five-factor model of personality, which looks at asagreeableness, openness, extroversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism. People high on sense on humor are also likely to score high on extroversion, openness, while agreeableness may be more likely to determine if aggressive humor is used. Ruch and Deckers (1993) noted a positive but weak correlation between sense of humor and psychoticism. Sense of humor, therefore, is not necessarily a simple and positive personality characteristic.

Relevance of Humor Theories to Disability studies

Only a few of the theories of humor have been discussed here: Incongruity, psychoanalytic, superiority and evolutionary, and some related to sense of humor. While these particular theories are currently informing much current psychosocial humor research, they are not necessarily relevant to all circumstances or analyses of humor. The incongruity theory, for example, may help us understand the construction of a formal joke, but not help us understand an in-vivo humorous interchange. More specifically, a joke told by a friend in the calm of a coffee lounge may offer "a sudden recognition of the meaninglessness of an event previously thought to be important," but the humor used to deal with the difficulties of a government agency or the health care system may not. To the contrary, in many real-life situations the importance of events is undiminished even when there is plenty of humor generated in the context of those events. People who use humor sometimes explain their joking as a way of stopping emotions such as sadness interfering with their current activities. The fact these people use humor does not mean that they think their sadness is unimportant or inappropriate, just inconvenient at the time. Humor of this type may be a coping strategy that helps people deal with the here-and-now by providing a distraction from serious circumstances and by offering an alternative set of responses. Other coping strategies may be more relevant for deeper and longer lasting coping outcomes.

Feingold and Mazzella’s discussion of wittiness may have special relevance to this symposium on humor and disability (Feingold and Mazzella, 1993). Wittiness, they argue, is made up of three components: humor motivation, humor cognition and humor communication. To evaluate its function and value, it is necessary to consider individual differences in motivation as well as ability to communicate humor. In areas of personal coping, such as relationships, health, and stress, the motivations may not always be manifest. For example, humor may occur in a health context and be centered on health issues, but the intent may be to enhance social bonding. Humor may be used by people wanting to give an "impression of normality" or appear to be dealing with difficult circumstances with little difficulty (Moran and Massam, 1997; Skevington and White, 1998). Thus, humor may be used make oneself appear to be coping, rather than to cope. Stronbach and Allen (1999) suggest this may include attempts to normalize the accidents that can accompany disability, and they refer to this type of humor as "heroic recovery." Shakespeare, (1999) eschewed the heroic image, claiming humor sometimes was just socially adept behavior by people with disabilities used to make others feel more ease in an unfamiliar context of disability. In this view, humor is used to help others cope. In such cases, humor may mask the actual level of coping in the person using the humor. We cannot assume the person joking or laughing is happy and content. Once again, the importance of context and intent become important the analysis of humor.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that humor can assist coping, so we must not too readily assume humor is a mask. Recall, in a disability context not all humor is about disability. Furthermore, sometimes things may just be funny; and this may be pleasant in itself. We may need to be able to give ourselves permission to laugh at things that are serious, but we also may need to give ourselves permission to laugh at things that are not serious at all.


Eysenck, H.J. (1943). An experimental analysis of five tests of "Appreciation of humor" Educational and Psychological Measurement 3, 191-214. Cited in Martin RA (1998) see below.

Feingold, A. and Mazzella, R. (1993). Preliminary validation of a multidimensional model of wittiness. Journal of Personality, 61: 439-456.

Fisher, S. and Fisher, R.L. (1981). Pretend the World is Funny and Forever. Erlbaum: Hillsdale (NJ).

Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Pelican Freud Library.

Hobbes. T. (1640). The Elements of Law Natural and Politic. Accessed 7 March 2001 at www.socsc.mcmasters.ca/-econ/ugcm/3113/hobbes/elelaw

Kant, I. (1790). The Critique of Judgement, Trans J.C.Meredith, (1952) Chicago: Wm Benton.

Karamboulous, P. (1930). Individual differences in the sense of humor and their relation to temperament. Archives of Psychology. 19, 1-83.

Koestler, A. (1964). The Act of Creation. London: Hutchinson.

Latta, R.L. (1998). The Basic Humor Process: A Cognitive-Shift Theory and the Case Against Incongruity. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lefcourt, H. (2001). The Psychology of Living Buoyantly. New York: Plenum

Lefcourt, H. and Thomas, S. (1998). Humour and stress revisited. In. In W. Ruch (Ed) The Sense of Humour: Explorations of a Personality Characteristic. Ch 8, pp179-202. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lewis, P. (Ed) (1997). Humor and political correctness. A roundtable discussion … Humour: International Journal of Humour Research. 10, 453-513.

Martin, R.A. (1996). The Situational Humour Response Questionnaire (SHRQ) and Coping Humour Scale (CHS) Humor: International Journal of Humour Research, Special Edition, 9, 251-272.

Martin, R.A. (1998). Approaches to the sense of humour: A historical review. In W. Ruch (Ed) The Sense of Humour: Explorations of a Personality Characteristic. Ch 3, pp15-60. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Moran, C.C. (2002). Humor as a moderator of compassion fatigue. In C Figley Treating Compassion Fatigue. Philadelphia , Bruner-Mazel.

Moran, C.C. and Massam, M. (1997). An evaluation of humour in emergency work. The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 3, 26-38. Electronic Journal accessible at http://massey.ac.nz/`trauma/

Moran, C.C. & Shakespeare-Finch, J. (in press). A trait approach to post-trauma vulnerability and growth. In D. Paton, J.M. Violanti and L.M. Smith. Promoting capabilities to Manage Posttraumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.

Moran, C.C. & Massam, M. (1999). Differential influence of coping humor and humor-bias on mood. Behavioral Medicine. 25, 36-42.

Ruch, W. and Deckers, L. (1993). Do extraverts "like to laugh"?: An analysis of the Situational Humor Response Questionnaire (SHRQ). European Journal of Personality. 7, 211-220.

Ruch, W. & Kohler, G. (1998). A temperament approach to humor. In W. Ruch (Ed) The Sense of Humour: Explorations of a Personality Characteristic. Ch 9, pp203-28. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Shakespeare, T. (1999). Joking a part? Body and Society, 5, 47-52.

Skevington, S.M. and White A. (1998). Is laughter the best medicine? Psychology and Health, 13, 157-169.

Stronbach, I. and Allan, J. (1999). Joking with disability: What’s the difference between the comic and the tragic in disability discourses? Body and Society, 5, 31-35.