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Style of humor may provide clues to children's underyling mental health

Style of humor may provide clues to children's underyling mental health

Picture of Ryan White
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In times of adversity, humor can be an essential salve, a steadying crutch.

I’m thinking less of the political fray these days and more about a different ordeal: adolescence. Comedy is at times both a cruel and crucial currency when growing up. On the one hand, it can mean the lasting scars that come from being on the wrong end of relentless teasing. On the other hand, a bent for humor is a kind of social capital that can help win friends, gain influence and endure the indignities of adolescence.

But does one’s early sense of humor say anything meaningful about his or her mental health? A recent study found that the types of humor that prevail in late childhood are linked to traits such as self-esteem and overall mental health.

First, it helps to understand the basic categories of humor used in such discussions. Over a decade ago, the Canadian human researcher Rod Martin and colleagues developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire, which is designed to measure four main styles of humor.

The first two humor styles tend be regarded by researchers as potentially corrosive, to the self and others: “Aggressive humor” tends to build up the person firing off jokes at the expense of others, while “self-defeating humor” seeks to gain favor with others by deprecating one’s self. Psychologists generally consider both of these styles potentially “maladaptive” or harmful.

The other two humor styles, conversely, tend to nurture social and individual well-being: “Affiliative humor” strengthens relationships and group bonds through laughter and joking, while “self-enhancing humor” bucks up one’s self without tearing others down (finding a little good-natured comedy in a flat tire on a rainy night, for example).

In the study, published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, researcher Claire Louise Fox and colleagues measured the humor styles of 1,234 students, ages 11 to 13, from six schools in England. Using a version of Martin’s questionnaire, they compared their humor profiles — few people only use one style of humor — to measures of social and psychological health: self-esteem, symptoms of depression, loneliness and so on over the course of the school year.

When they compared the two axes, the researchers found that self-defeating humor tracked with increases in loneliness and signs of depression over the course of the school year, as well as decreases in self-esteem. The patterns held true for both boys and girls.

While a previous study found an association between aggressive humor and lower self-worth and depression, this study found no such links. And affiliative humor didn’t necessarily lead to better-adjusted kids over time, at least over this study’s short duration. But higher levels of self-esteem made it more likely students would embrace affiliative humor over the course of the year. (Previous research has shown that affiliative and self-enhancing humor is associated with lower levels of depression and loneliness in adults, however.)

In an essay exploring the study’s findings, Fox, one of the study’s authors, suggests that kids should be encouraged or even taught to use more positive styles of humor — self-enhancing and affiliative — since they seem to be linked to better mental health, in both kids and adults. Fox writes:

This is not so much about teaching children to be ‘funny’: it’s about educating them about the potential positive and negative effects of the ways in which humor can be used, which will hopefully improve their relationships with others and how they feel about themselves.

Association isn’t causation, of course, and so it’s hard to say whether it’s really humor styles driving these mental states, or the other way around. And in fact, this latest study found that self-defeating humor predicted an increase in depressive signs, while depression predicted an increase in self-defeating humor. As you might imagine, these can be self-reinforcing categories.

But perhaps the broader takeaway from the research is that jokes and our habitual ways of telling them start young. Over time, they can shape how we relate to our selves and others. Our comedy reveals us more than we know.

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