You may not want Woody Allen to have your life in his hands, but in terms of watching his own psychological health, the comedian has it right. Two new studies from the Stanford University Psychophysiology Laboratory demonstrate that, in the face of stressful imagery, comedy is a more effective coping strategy than solemnity – and positive, optimistic humor is more effective than cynicism.
The findings support the idea that humor exerts its psychological effect by forcing a change of perspective. And, based on the greater efficacy of positive humor, the researchers suggest that positive humor facilitates real reappraisal, while negative humor works by half measures, distancing the subject from the upsetting picture without creating a new mental scenario.
A similar head-to-head comparison of positive humor with typical, serious reappraisal was conducted by Stanford master’s degree student Alana Glassco with Samson and Gross. The result, presented at the 2011 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Humor Preconference, again found optimistic joking to be the more powerful emotional regulator. By demonstrating that subjects who had been asked to use humor also exhibited an increase in verbal fluency after the trial (measured with a standard psychological test that asks subjects to say as many words as possible from a given category), the research may have bolstered the theory that humor changes cognitive processing.
The increase in fluency, explained Glassco, may suggest “the use of humorous reappraisal led individuals to experience higher levels of creativity and cognitive flexibility.”
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