A good laugh or a funny perspective is sure to lighten your mood, but not all humor has the same effect.

Being humorous can have many positive effects on overall health. It’s viewed as one type of coping mechanism that helps to relieve the burden of stressful emotions.

Humor may not always seem appropriate, but if it’s used in the right way, it can help to positively change your perspective of troubling circumstances.

There are different styles of humor and differences between cultures. Knowing the differences can help determine how to best use humor — or not — in a way that’s pleasant and agreeable to everyone.

The various behaviors we carry out in response to stress are referred to as our coping mechanisms. These behaviors can be different for everyone and are attempts to manage and reduce the stress we feel.

If you’ve ever found yourself having trouble coping with a stressful situation such as public speaking or starting a new job, then you’ve probably already developed your own coping mechanisms.

There are four different categories of coping mechanisms:

  • problem-focused — behaviors that seek to address the problem causing the stress
  • meaning-focused — attempts to understand the meaning of the stressful situation
  • support seeking — calling upon family, friends, or medical professionals to help manage the stressful situation
  • emotion-focused — behaviors that aim to manage or reduce stressful emotions

In each category, individual coping behaviors can be considered healthy or unhealthy, depending on how the behavior affects your mental and physical health. For example, excessively drinking alcohol to relieve stress would be considered an unhealthy coping behavior.

When a situation feels stressful enough to trigger coping behaviors, humor is used by some to dampen the negative effects of the stress.

Stressful feelings can often translate to fear or anxiety. A 2020 review, which referenced psychologist Sigmund Freud’s perspectives on humor, suggests that humor can be a way of warding off these feelings.

Humor falls into the emotion-focused coping category, as it helps to relieve the burden of stressful emotions. Laughing feels good and can also help improve your health and well-being in different ways.

You may at first think that being humorous is always a healthy behavior because it makes you feel good, but humor can be harmful to yourself or others in some cases. It depends on the style of humor being used, according to a 2021 study.

There are two different styles of humor: positive and negative.

Positive humor

There are three types of positive humor, including:

  • Affiliative: You can think of this style as a good-natured, light-hearted, jolly humor. It includes things such as funny stories and clever or witty jokes that most people would find funny and take no offense to.
  • Positive reappraisal: If you try to identify humorous aspects of a stressful situation, this is called positive reappraisal or reframing. It helps to shift your perspective of the situation from a threat to a positive challenge.
  • Self-enhancing: Similar to positive reappraisal, it generally refers to maintaining a funny outlook on life, laughing at yourself for small failures, or privately finding humor in the oddities of daily life.

Negative humor

The two types of negative humor are:

  • Self-defeating: This occurs when you make jokes about yourself to try and connect with others.
  • Aggressive: Humor is considered aggressive when it comes at the expense of others. Examples of this include actions such as excessively teasing others or making them feel bad to try to make yourself feel better.

Traumatic events can affect your overall mental and emotional well-being. Trauma can sometimes feel unavoidably serious or could never be humorous, but humor can be used to improve trauma in some cases.

A 2015 study examined the relationship between humor and psychological trauma in over 200 victims of terror attacks. Researchers found that healthy humor styles used in this instance were associated with less trauma symptoms.

Humor can be used to change your perspective of the trauma from serious to lighthearted, which may help to regulate stressful emotions.

In short, laughing and making light of matters that feel serious or heavy may help relieve the emotional effects of the trauma.

Humor can be an effective tool to improve multiple aspects of your health. The benefits of humor are mostly attributed to healthy humor styles such as affiliative and self-enhancing. But aggressive humor is also sometimes effective.

A 2017 review looked at the relationship between humor and various aspects of well-being between nurses and their patients. Researchers found many benefits of humor in this setting, including:

  • improving communication
  • reducing stress and anxiety
  • relieving tension
  • improving recovery

There’s always a chance that trying to be funny can backfire and create discomfort in another person. Humor that’s inappropriate can damage relationships in the workplace, according to research from 2019.

The highest chance for inappropriate humor is with the negative styles of humor. Aggressive humor, in particular, is more socially harmful, meaning that it’s less likely to be received in social settings.

Similarly, when using the self-defeating style, others may lose respect for you or have difficulty taking you seriously. Although a 2016 study found a positive effect on well-being, a 2018 literature review concluded that this humor style doesn’t improve mental health.

Cultural differences

Whether or not humor is effective can also depend on cultural factors. A 2019 review found significant differences in how humor is viewed and used across cultures.

In Chinese culture, there are mixed opinions about whether or not humor is appropriate and socially acceptable. Chinese citizens who follow Confucian philosophy tend to devalue humor and generally don’t view it as an acceptable behavior.

On the other hand, Chinese citizens who embrace Taoism tend to view humor as a way of increasing peace and harmony with nature. This is similar to Canadian culture, which sees humor as socially acceptable, desirable, and beneficial.

Humor can be one way of coping with stressful situations that you encounter in your daily affairs. It’s primarily a way of managing emotional stress, but also has many other benefits.

Not all humor is beneficial, and humor can sometimes be inappropriate. Sticking to positive humor ensures that your jokes and perspectives will be well-received, but there are also cultural considerations.

So, go ahead and have a laugh today if you feel like it! It may make you feel better and help you look on the bright side of things.