Hypothesis no. 1: Humor makes us strong

Imagine a tornado sweeps across your city, damaging your house and causing a tree to fall onto your car and crush it. Could you react to a quirk of fate like this with humor? One US citizen was obviously able to do that, hanging the sign “compact car” on the wrecked vehicle on the drive in front of the rubble of his house. Humor researcher Paul McGhee saw the photo in a newspaper and recognized the value of such a comic take: Someone who is able to do that has a strong sense of humor that enables them to cope even with very difficult situations. “That’s a good example of humor making us more resilient,” says McGhee. “It helps us to turn our negative emotional state into a positive one.” In the case of the “compact car”, the joke had an effect not only on the owner of the car, but also on the neighbors, who had also suffered from the tornado, and on all those who saw the photo in the paper. The sign sent a loud and clear message: We won’t let things get us down! This ability to laugh in the face of a bad situation is called resilience – the ability to bounce back up and fight on like Rocky after a knock-out punch.

 “Humor helps us to reduce negative emotions and tackle difficult situations,” says UZH psychologist Willibald Ruch. In order to recover after a heavy blow, it is necessary to develop a positive basic attitude, to mobilize our strength and find hope for the future. The famous glass always has the same amount of liquid, whether we see it as half-full or half-empty. House without a roof, car flat as a pancake? It’s not so bad, we’re alive and we’ll roll up our sleeves and get on with things!

In general, humor helps us to get through difficult life situations because it enables us to laugh at ourselves. Paul McGhee has a joke about that: An elderly couple are both a bit forgetful. She says to him: Do you want a scoop of ice cream? He says: Yes please, but don’t forget the spoon! After a while she comes out of the kitchen with a plate of scrambled eggs. He says to her: See, I told you you’d forget the toast!

Cultural studies scholar Malte Völk of the Institute for Popular Culture Studies at UZH investigates how humor can help people with dementia. When analyzing diaries kept by dementia patients and their families, Völk noticed that humor played an important role. When dementia sets in, much of what was previously taken for granted in everyday life is thrown into question. Words are forgotten or used wrongly, orientation is difficult, and there are gaps in the memory. “This is extremely frustrating at first,” says Völk, “but by not taking the situation too seriously, the people affected can step back from what’s happening and win back a bit of control. They laugh about their mistakes, confusion and mishaps. For example, a woman with dementia told Völk’s colleague Valerie Keller in an interview about a memory test that she had to take at a clinic. It was really easy, laughed the patient, child’s play – but she failed spectacularly.

As part of the project “Self-Care for Dementia Patients” at the Institute for Popular Culture Studies, one of Valerie Keller’s areas of research is into the benefits of taking a light-hearted approach for people suffering from dementia. In conversations with dementia patients she realized that most of them were aware of when they did something wrong or looked silly. The situations were so absurd there was nothing to do but laugh, some of the patients said. In such cases humor is a proven self-care technique to better cope with dementia. “Humor is freeing, it can help us get a sense of perspective on the world and ourselves so that we bounce back stronger,” says Malte Völk, who describes humor as a kind of inner vacation that we can take to restore our strength, especially in times of existential crisis.