Living Through Difficult Times? It’s Okay to Laugh

Humor can relieve stress and help us cope—but when and how you joke makes a difference.

smiling woman working on laptop

Updated on August 4, 2023.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitalization and fatality numbers seemed only to rise, and the news was consistently grim. At such a serious time, it felt to many of us like the appropriate thing was to put on a somber face, buckle down, and get through it.

But still, even in the bleakest hours, humor persisted. Late night hosts kept telling jokes (albeit to empty rooms), comedy films and sitcoms kept attracting viewers, and funny memes—many about the coronavirus itself—kept making the rounds on social media. In fact, it could be argued that we needed laughter in those times more than ever.

And as one crisis gives way to the next in our seemingly sky-always-falling times, we may ask ourselves which impulse is the “right” one: The one that prompts us to laugh in the face of tragedy or the one that sobers us up and keeps us from joking?

The answer, experts say, is that both feelings are natural—and both are necessary to make it through trying times. Here’s what to keep in mind as we navigate the complex relationship between humor and tragedy.

The health benefits of laughter 

Laughter can be good for us any time, but its health benefits may be especially important during periods of uncertainty. Chronic stress can contribute to harmful inflammation and weakened immune function, but studies suggest that laughing may reduce levels of stress hormones and bolster the immune system.

A good giggle can also have immediate effects: It can boost blood vessel functioning, act as a natural painkiller, improve circulation, and relax tense muscles. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, laughing with close friends triggered the production of endorphins—or feel-good chemicals in the brain—along with feelings of pleasure and calmness.

Those chemical changes may even help explain why laughter helps humans bond and form relationships, the study authors proposed. These days, whether the crisis before us is a pandemic or unpredictable and dangerous weather, anything that helps people connect emotionally feels especially meaningful.

Finding humor in serious situations can also trigger a shift in perspective.

Humor offers a fresh look at our situation

“On a cognitive or mental level, laughter can help us to look at circumstances differently,” says Katie Cherry, PhD, professor of psychology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and author of The Other Side of Suffering: Finding a Path to Peace after Tragedy. 

In Cherry’s research on survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, using humor as a coping mechanism was associated with post-disaster resilience. In a nutshell, resilience is the ability to bounce back or respond positively to adversity.

“The negative impacts of stressors may become more manageable and perhaps less overwhelming, both physiologically and psychologically, when one can laugh,” she says.

And yes, even “dark comedy” or “gallows humor” can have mental-health benefits, when used in appropriate contexts. For example, research on firefighters, crime scene investigators, and medical professionals suggests that those who joke in the face of death and trauma on the job are less likely to suffer from problems like burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder

What kind of humor works—and what falls flat?

In the midst of a crisis like a pandemic, seeking out humor can be a little trickier. One place to start might be with comedy sources that are unrelated to current events.

Most of us could use a break from the news now and then. For that reason, humor in the form of sitcoms, funny movies, or stand-up comedy can provide a respite from the seemingly endless reel of frightening and tragic stories, Cherry says. 

“Familiar and funny, favorite old shows and movies can take the edge off of a bad day,” she says. “They can serve as comic ‘comfort food’ that can enhance wellbeing, if only temporarily.”

But what about jokes about crisis or tragedy? Are they okay to make or enjoy?

On one hand, making light of a stressful situation can be a coping mechanism, says Cherry, and can help people find humor in shared experiences. That may be what caused memes and jokes about some of the more lighthearted parts of this pandemic—hoarding toilet paper, being stuck at home, and struggling to learn videoconferencing technology, for example—to be so widely shared online.

But these jokes often become less funny as a crisis continues, particularly if it takes a toll on jobs and human lives. Studies from the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder have found that situations are generally considered funny only when they’re also considered benign. Some time or distance from a tragic event is also typically needed before it feels okay to joke about.

As an example of humor that got it "right," Cherry cites a viral video made by a British family who changed the words of the song “One Day More” from the musical Les Misérables to reflect a litany of pandemic-related woes: grandparents who couldn’t figure out how to make a video call, kids who missed their friends and haven't changed their clothes for days, and more.

Jokes in this vein work because they're relatable. During that period of time, "most everyone was restless or bored at home, cooped up, not able to do what one normally does," Cherry says.

In contrast, jokes that are seen as aloof or insensitive (or both) likely won't land so well. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres took down a video in which she compared being quarantined at her home to being in jail after online commenters pointed out that (a) DeGeneres lives in a huge house, and (b) people were literally dying in prison due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Coming from a celebrity, the joke was less relatable, says Cherry. "Most of us don't live in a mansion or have the wealth and luxurious lives that others have," she says.

The key, says Cherry, is to measure how new the crisis is and to think about if and when it may be too soon to consider humor a reasonable reaction.

Your audience matters, too 

Humor, like grief, is a complex emotion that everyone experiences differently. But to stay on the safe side in times of crisis, Cherry suggests keeping jokes and lighthearted banter to smaller social circles of people who know each other well.

“Humor among friends, co-workers, or family who have a shared history and long-standing tradition of kidding with each other might serve as a safe context for expression of humor, in light of the uncertainties associated with [a crisis] and the potential to offend,” she says.

Making jokes to a broader circle—on a public social media profile, for example—is riskier. Since a widespread crisis like a pandemic affects so many people in different ways, it’s impossible to know how your joke will land with every person at any given moment.

Even among those you’re closest with, it’s best to read the room first. “Timing, audience, and circumstances are vitally important to consider,” says Cherry. Otherwise, she adds, “attempts at levity may fail miserably.”

Cherry points out that stress associated with a crisis like the pandemic may be overwhelming to some people, especially for those suffering financial hardships, grieving the loss of a loved one, or simply feeling exhausted and vulnerable.

That’s why it’s important to remember that even friends who are normally jovial and good natured may not appreciate humor when they are in the thick of things—and that that can change by the day or even by the hour.

Humor does have healing powers, Cherry says, but it’s necessary to recognize that “one size does not fit all when it comes to the choice of coping strategies.” And when it comes to using laughter to deal with life’s stressors, she adds, “sensitivity, discretion, and respect are key.”

Article sources open article sources

Cleveland Clinic. “3 Ways That Laughter Can Give You a Healthier Heart.” August 15, 2016.
M Miller, MD, WF Fry, MD. “The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on the Human Cardiovascular System.” Medical Hypotheses. November 2009; 73(5): 636.
Mayo Clinic. “Stress relief from laughter? It's no joke.” April 5, 2019.
S Manninen, L Tuominen, RI Dunbar, et al. “Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans.” Journal of Neuroscience. June 21, 2017; 37 (25) 6125-6131.
KE Cherry, L Sampson, S Galea, et al. “Spirituality, Humor, and Resilience After Natural and Technological Disasters.” Journal of Nursing Scholarship. September 2018.  50(5):492-501.
M Sliter, A Kale, Z Yuan. “Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect of coping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters.” Journal of Organizational Behavior. May 14, 2013.
BD Vivona. “Investigating Humor Within a Context of Death and Tragedy: The Narratives of Contrasting Realities.” The Qualitative Report. 2013, 18(50), 1-22.
Katie Watson. “Gallows Humor in Medicine.” The Hastings Center Report. February 8, 2012.
Humor Research Lab, University of Colorado Boulder. “Benign Violation Theory.”
Rasha Ali. “Ellen takes down video after 'jail' joke about coronavirus self-quarantine lands poorly.” USA Today. April 8, 2020.

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