The role of humor in building resilience
by Marie Baleo
We all know it, instinctively: humor, and its logical consequence, laughter, are not only pleasant but necessary to our mental health and well-being. Who has never tried to console a crying child by making them laugh, or sat down in front of a comedy at the end of a particularly dreadful day? But while humor may make life’s little disappointments and frustrations slightly easier to bear, it fulfills a much more crucial mission: to be a defense mechanism we can yield whenever we face a traumatic event, and to help us build resilience in the aftermath of such trauma.
Humor, a prime defense mechanism
Studies suggest that from an evolutionary standpoint, humor has evolved as a tool for humans to cope with stress factors they might encounter; in other words, it acts as a defense mechanism. The notion of defense mechanism, coined by Sigmund Freud in The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence (1894), may be defined as an unconscious mental process the human mind resorts to in order to reach compromise solutions to conflicts it cannot resolve. These unconscious strategies help protect the individual by rejecting thoughts that could potentially give rise to acute anxiety or are perceived by the mind as a threat. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) distinguishes over thirty different defense mechanisms, they all share certain characteristics: they are unconscious and operate by denying or distorting reality.
Humor, which has the ability to protect us from negative emotions, is one such defense mechanism, and not the least of them: Freud himself considered it the most mature and advanced of all, as does the DSM. According to Nicholas Kuiper, humor operates as a defense mechanism in two distinct ways: firstly, by helping individuals perceive their environment as less threatening that individuals with a less heightened sense of humor normally would, and, secondly, by helping individuals faced with stressful situations to make “more benign reappraisals of the stressors”.
Freud himself viewed humor as a pressure valve of sorts, allowing the conscious to express taboo or suppressed thoughts, and letting these taboos be talked about freely, if indirectly. Freud applied his framework of the ego, the superego and the id to his theory regarding humor and established that a benevolent superego would give rise to light, harmless humor, while a harsher superego would more naturally resort to sarcasm. In individuals with the strictest of superegos, humor would simply cease to be expressed, in order to prevent the id from deriving pleasure out of said humor, and to prevent adaptation to, and coping with, reality.
Israeli psychologist Chaya Ostrower notes that, with humor, “the individual spares himself or herself the distressing and painful effects that the situation causes by canceling the emotional possibility of sorrow through humor”. Ostrower goes on to study the use of humor (defined, for the study participants, as “anything that made you laugh or smile”) by victims of the Holocaust, based on interviews with 55 Jewish Holocaust survivors, both male and female, who were teenagers during the Second World War. The study focuses on the use of humor in concentration camps as an everyday survival strategy, and perhaps the most efficient defense mechanism for individuals faced with situations so atrocious they could not be comprehended, and mostly could not be faced without strong psychological defenses.
For example, of the trauma of getting her hair cut in Auschwitz and the virtues of humor as a tool for survival, survivor Lily Rickman told Ostrower that:
“The first time that I took the things like this, not so conventionally, was when they cut our hair in Auschwitz. That was something terrible. We went into the shower and came out of it. It all went so fast, we did not understand what it meant, and so fast, we didn’t have a moment to think. And after they cut my hair off . . . suddenly, I saw some girlfriends of mine, that I’d known for a very long time. You couldn’t recognize them, and then I started laughing. I don’t know, many cried. They cried for their long hair, and then I started laughing, and they asked: “What, are you out of your mind, what are you laughing about?” I said: “I never had this before, a hairdo for free, never in my whole life.” Yes, that is what I said, “I never had a hairdo for free before,” and I still remember, they looked at me as if I was crazy.”
Ostrower showed that humor helped prisoners adapt to their living conditions and to the fear and brutality they had to contend with. This meant that situations long-time prisoners deemed funny were often “terrifying and repulsive to new prisoners”. Humor thus fulfills an adaptative, didactic function, with jokes helping new prisoners understand situations and realities they would have to face.
Interviewed survivor Felicja Karay stated that:
“Humor and satire played a tremendous role, in my opinion. . . . It was a cemetery all right, and exactly for that reason, the mere fact that we wanted somehow to preserve our personality . . . they wanted to make robots out of us. This was the integral part of our inner, mental struggle for our human identity, the fact that we could still laugh at things. . . . Humor was an integral part of our spiritual resistance. And this spiritual resistance was the pre-condition for a desire to live, to put it briefly. . . . No matter how little it occurred, no matter how sporadic it was, or how spontaneous, it was very important. Very important!”
Ostrower highlights an important notion: the idea that humor as a defense mechanism does not operate by decreasing the pain and anguish the survivors went through, which they of course could never ignore, but rather to cope by decreasing “their subjective feeling of these horrors”. Similarly, researcher Nicholas Kuiper showed that humor “does not deny the negative experience, but helps construe it as less threatening”, and quoted Rollo May, who suggested in 1953 that humor served to preserve “the sense of self … It is the healthy way of feeling a ‘distance’ between one’s self and the problem, a way of standing off and looking at one’s problem with perspective” . Thus, humor is perhaps one of the sanest, healthiest defense mechanisms, in that it does not promote denial of the traumatic event, but forces the individual to face reality and offers a healthy, protective response to this reality.
For example, so-called gallows humor is often present in dangerous or highly stressful work environments, and is common among firefighters, nurses, ER personnel and police officers, among others. This darker, cynical humor acts to release tension and cope with stress and anxiety while promoting cohesion within the team.
Humor as a means to cope with otherness and individual challenges
While this example offers an illustration of humor as a shared, collective defense mechanism used to face an ordeal or a dangerous situation, humor may also be used to face individual challenges, as shown by studies on the use of humor as a mechanism for coping with illness and physical disability.
For instance, Kuiper mentions a study conducted in Norway on a sample of patients with final-stage renal disease. The study indicated higher survival rates over a 2-year period for patients with a strong sense of humor. Similarly, a study conducted by Véronique Carrière of the Université Montpellier 3 (France) showed that visually-impaired students used humor to distance themselves from their perceived otherness and difference, and to avoid having to answer uncomfortable questions. Carrière notes that humor, when it is constructive, is also an indication of resilience. However, Carrière believes that sarcasm and irony are “indications of the mark of otherness in the negative representations carried by the concept of otherness”.
Thus, there seem to be fine distinctions between several types of humor, and variations in the ways in which these types of humor may be appropriate and constructive mechanisms in the face of adversity. While irony and sarcasm were reported by the Holocaust survivors interviewed by Ostrower as common and useful defense mechanisms for a large group of individuals faced with the same nightmarish situation, but for whom individual otherness is not the issue, it turns into a self-destructive form of humor for individuals ostracized for their specific otherness, such as Carrière’s sample of visually-impaired students faced with inquisitive looks and questions from their classmates.
Additionally, humor is a primary component of, and means to achieve resilience, defined as the “process of effectively negotiating, adapting to, or managing significant sources of stress or trauma. Assets and resources within the individual, their life and environment facilitate this capacity for adaptation and “bouncing back” in the face of adversity.” Thus, a study conducted by Ong, Bergeman, and Bisconti (2004) showed that a heightened use of humor in the aftermath of the death of a spouse increased emotional resilience.
Ultimately, as Chaya Ostrower remarked after interviewing the group of survivors, “there is no doubt that humor is one of the most elegant, effective defence mechanisms in the human repertoire”. But the effectiveness of humor as a defense mechanism should not divert our attention from the pain and suffering humor sometimes hides.
Notes:  Definition taken from Encyclopaedia Britannica.  “Humor and Resiliency: Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth”, Nicholas A. Kuiper, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, ejop.psychopen.eu | 1841-0413. http://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/viewFile/464/354  Read more here.  “Humor as a Defense Mechanism during the Holocaust”, Chaya Ostrower, Beit-Berl College, Kfar Saba, Israel, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 2015, Vol. 69(2) 183–195, http://int.sagepub.com/content/69/2/183.full.pdf  Emphasis added.  “Humor and Resiliency: Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth”, Nicholas A. Kuiper, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, ejop.psychopen.eu | 1841-0413. http://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/viewFile/464/354  “Humor and Resiliency: Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth”, Nicholas A. Kuiper, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, ejop.psychopen.eu | 1841-0413. http://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/viewFile/464/354  Carrière Véronique, « Résilience et humour chez des étudiants déficients visuels », Psychothérapies 3/2013 (Vol. 33) , p. 167-175. URL : www.cairn.info/revue-psychotherapies-2013-3-page-167.htm. DOI : 10.3917/psys.133.0167.  Windle (2011) as quoted in “Humor and Resiliency: Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth”, Nicholas A. Kuiper, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, ejop.psychopen.eu | 1841-0413. http://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/viewFile/464/354  Ibid.