Why Humor Isn't Always the Answer to Depression

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Why Humor Isn't Always the Answer to Depression

Humor may not always be the cure to depression , but in most cases, actually the symptoms of it as people who suffer depression tend to resort to joking as a means of self-medication / Photo by Getty Images


At what point does humor or laughter stop becoming the “best medicine”? Suffering from depression may actually make one a better comedian but laughing a problem off may not always be the solution. Using jokes continually to counter stress can be fatal in some ways, the findings of several researchers suggest.

Humor may not always be the cure to depression, but in most cases, actually the symptom of it. The death of Robin Williams is evidence to this. Other comedians who are known to be affected by depression are Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams.

A research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that depression could drive a comedian to look for ways to relieve themselves from their low mood. Due to this, they resort to joking as a means of self-medication.

Depression Definition

The American Psychological Association defines depression as something that goes beyond sadness and people who are affected by this disorder may display symptoms which include losing interest or not feeling any joy from daily activities, sleeping too much or experiencing insomnia, being listless, being unable to focus, feeling worthless or guilty and constantly thinking about suicide.


Depression is something that goes beyond sadness which people may display symptoms like losing interest, not feeling any joy from daily activities and other symptoms / Photo by Getty Images


Styles of Humor

According to a study conducted by researchers from Oklahoma State University, employing  a certain style of humor may either be the cause of suicide, or the reason one stops wanting to commit it. These are the styles of humor which are used to cope with depression:

Positive Styles of Humor


This is described as the humor which involves easing relationships, lessening conflicts among interpersonal connections with playful teasing.


This is defined as having a funny perspective on one’s life, especially when going through stressful experiences.

Negative styles of humor


This style of humor involves trying to put others down and manipulating them through hostile teasing, ridicule and sarcasm.


This involves joking about one’s self in a negative way.



Humor as both a Barrier and a Bridge to Suicide

The kind of humor that may cause a person to be more prone to suicide is the self-defeating type. The authors explain that those who use this as a coping mechanism for their problems feel “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness.” They explain that thwarted belongingness is the feeling that a person is disconnected to their loved ones and that they do not care enough. Perceived burdensomeness, on the other hand, is feeling that one is a merely a burden to others.

Since they usually tell people about their imperfections through jokes, when those close to them find these funny, it proves all the more that they are flawed. A person who uses self-defeating humor shows that they are more inclined to using negative ways of dealing with depression.

However, there is another kind of humor that may cause a person to defer their plan to commit suicide, this is the affiliative kind of humor. Since this type of humor builds up one’s interpersonal connections and dissipates social tensions, it is more likely to shield an individual from feeling suicidal.

Three Sides of “Humorous” Depression

In another study published in January 2014, it was discovered that comic performance is associated mania part of bipolar disorder. Victoria Ando, one of the authors of the study, claims that they are connected because having an extremely high mood is mixed with rapidly changing ideas.

They based their study on a well-known English comedian, Spiked Milligan who had gone through manic-depressive episodes. They claim that Milligan’s funny ideas that were the trademark of his comic performances were caused by his manic states.

It was discovered that comedians who suffered from depression had two contrasting parts of their personality profile which were “introverted anhedonia” and “extraverted impulsiveness.”

The Huffington Post which refers to this study says that these two traits mix, “seemingly opposite personality characteristics: unsociable, depressive traits and extraverted, manic-like features.”

Another trait found in comedians was “impulsive non-conformity”, a characteristic explained as the inclination to be antisocial and act impulsively, which is associated with being unable to control one’s self because of their mood.

These three traits showed that a comedian was suffering from bipolar disorder.

Why do Comedians Use Humor in Fighting Depression?

The New Daily says that comedians use humor as a coping mechanism for these reasons:

1. As temporary relief

Dr. Bob Montgomery, an honorary fellow from the Australian Psychological Society states that comedians use humor, which is a part of their public persona, to “face their demons”. However, he says this is only a temporary way to alleviate their depression and in the following week they still feel as helpless.

Even Hannah Gadsby, an Australian comedian, attests to this. She says that it is a “lovely, momentary release” but is not actually a solution to problems.

2. To express fear

Tim Ferguson, a comedian, writer and producer, says laughter is actually the body’s response to fear. He also states that nobody laughs when things are going right for them.

Ferguson states, “There is something about that that makes comedians very adept at writing comedy.”

Referring back to Gadsby, she reinforces this statement by saying that it is not about sadness, but rather about creative people being sensitive. She explains, “ If you’re sensitive to the world, you’re sensitive to both the beauty and the subtlety and that can be quite brutal.”

Humor Comes From Moments of Human Weakness

The Melbourne Comedy Festival held in 2015 which had the theme Sick Humor, had guest comedians elaborate how they include their difficulties, such as loneliness, alcoholism, mental health problems, sexual abuse and failed suicide attempts in their routine.

Lawrence Mooney, a veteran comedian who was part of the event, had struggled with addiction, heartbreak and self-degradation. He also tried to commit suicide several times.

Mooney says that comedy is a way to make comedians fill in the emptiness they have inside. “They’ve got darkness. And audiences are voyeurs—they love to have a look inside. Identifiable comedy wins every time. Failure is funny, success is not funny.”

He adds, “Failed suicide in retrospect is hilarious. It’s set up for the perfect kind of comedy…the brutal honesty is very comic because you’re telling somebody something that is either making them squirm or cringe or laugh uncontrollably.”

Humor as a Suicide Indicator

The previous findings, especially the one conducted by Ando and his co-authors show that humor can be a precursor to suicide. Clinicians are advised to keep close track of the sense of humor their patients use, because this could indicate that they are at the verge of taking their own life.



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