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Good Jokes Cure Bad Moods

Dutch researchers discover how a good laugh distracts us from negative emotions.

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.

Both humor experts offer caveats about the study and the value of humor. Using jokes to boost moods works better if the situation that put you in the bad mood is not extremely personal, Kuhn says.  If someone's loved one was just diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, for instance, making a joke that they should just "forget about it" would not go over well -- the situation is too personal, he says.

Your mood can't be so bad that the funniest joke in the world couldn't lift your spirits, he says. "You have to be in the mood to play," Kuhn says. "You have to be willing to participate in the joke to get the benefit out of it."

Reviewed on August 20, 2009

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