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Good Jokes Cure Bad Moods

Dutch researchers discover how a good laugh distracts us from negative emotions.
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Humor and Mood: Study Results

When the men and women saw mildly and strongly negative pictures, then got the humorous stimuli, they had less negative feelings than when they were exposed to the negative pictures and then the non-funny positive stimuli. The stimuli that posed greater cognitive demands -- that is, people had to work harder to get the joke -- were more effective at lifting bad moods than those that were less demanding.

When they saw neutral pictures, humor had the same mood-lifting effect as non-humor, Strick says.

That suggests, she says, that "humor may attenuate negative emotions as a result of cognitive distraction."  What sets humor, or at least a joke, apart from other positive emotions, she says, is that it includes an "incongruity" that must be resolved to get the joke. That is, the typical joke "set up" motivates listeners to make a prediction about the outcome, but a good punch line violates the expectations. The listener has to resolve the incongruity to make sense of the punch line.

Humor and Mood Study: Other Opinions

The new research verifies what humor experts have known or suspected, says Clifford Kuhn, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky who gives presentations on the value of humor.

''They have verified in numbers the fact that a joke is superior to any other forms of distraction it was tested against," he tells WebMD.

He explains the work of "getting" a joke -- resolving the incongruity -- by telling an old joke:

A frantic father calls the doctor, saying, "Doctor, my child just swallowed a fountain pen." The doctor assures him he is on the way and asks, "What are you doing in the meantime?" The father replies: "Using a pencil."

That punch line, of course, is unexpected. "The cognitive work of finding the new 'congruent' is what we call 'getting the joke,'" he says. Listeners must figure out that the father, frantic, misunderstood the question.

"What they are suggesting is that humor ... is an effective way to redirect anxiety,'' says Ed Dunkelblau, PhD, a psychologist in Northbrook, Ill., and past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

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