Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Healthy Sense of Humor = Mental Health?

From Missouri Western State University:

Missouri Western State University
Sponsored by BRIAN CRONK(

Recent studies have determined that having a sense of humor leads to a relationship with a person’s overall mental health. The purpose of this study is to determine if there is a correlation between the two variables. Two questionnaires were distributed to students on the campus of Missouri Western State College and the results were scored. The data were analyzed and a significant correlation was found between sense of humor and mental health. As scores on the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale increased (showing a high sense of humor), scores on the mental health survey decreased (showing great mental health). Further implications are discussed in the paper.

When people hear the word, “psychology”, they most likely associate it with mental disorders. Psychologists have studied the field of mental illness and disorders for many years; however, there is a new area to research. Positive psychology turned the focus from the negative aspects of psychology to the more optimistic aspects, such as happiness, courage, and sense of humor.

Although the concept of positive psychology is rather new, the idea of sense of humor dates back to biblical times (Martin, 2001). Also, in the 13th century, physicians and philosophers described laughter and its health benefits. Sense of humor is a universal, multifaceted concept and thus has many definitions. Martin (2001) describes sense of humor as “habitual individual differences in all sorts of behaviors, experiences, affects, attitudes, and abilities relating to amusement, laughter, jocularity, and so on”. Because humor is so extensive, it can be labeled as a personality trait, a stimulus variable, an emotional response, a mental process, and a therapeutic intervention.

Despite the fact that humor is universal, the content of the humor differs across cultures and genders. Every culture has a set of rules, norms, and values that decide what kind of humor is appropriate. For instance, Americans prefer jokes that consist of sexual or aggressive content, whereas Chinese humor is rather restrained and concealed (Nevo, Nevo, & Yin, 2001). Gender is another issue that causes difference in humor and content. Women prefer jokes with less aggressive and less sexual content than do men. However, both men and women favor to have women as the target of jokes. When it came to creating and appreciating humor, men scored higher on creation and women scored higher on appreciation (Nevo, Nevo, & Yin, 2001).

Many theories have been created that explain the concept of humor; though three main theories help us to understand. First, incongruity theories concentrate on perceiving humor and the cognitive processes involved in it. Second, relief theories state the belief that laughter is a release of energy that has been suppressed. Finally, superiority theories describe that humor comes from a person’s aspiration to feel better than the other (Graham, 1995).

Having a sense of humor includes many benefits. Individuals with a greater sense of humor are more motivated, cheerful, trustworthy, and have a higher self-esteem. They are also more likely to develop close, social relationships (Kelly, 2002). One of the greatest benefits of having a sense of humor is the influence it has on health. First, humor can be interceded by social relationships, which may create health-enhancing effects. Second, humor has an indirect effect on stress levels. By having a humorous outlook on life, stressful experiences are often minimized. Third, physiological processes are influenced by humor. For example, laughing may reduce muscle tension, increase the flow of oxygen to the blood, exercise the cardiovascular region, and produce endorphins. Finally, humor corresponds with positive emotional states (Martin, 2001) and is known to be an indicator of mental health.

Mental health, or psychological well-being, is another multifaceted concept with many definitions. It is the ability to overcome psychological distress, develop psychologically and emotionally, become aware of others, and maintain social relationships (Zeman, 2003). Statistical definitions compare individuals who are on the outer ends of the bell-shaped curve to “normal” individuals who fall in the middle. Moral/spiritual definitions are used in traditional cultures and focuses on the characteristics that provide evidence of mental health. Finally, subjective definitions approach how disorders are either present or absent (Qualls, 2002). Mental health can be characterized by six essential factors: self-acceptance, personal growth, autonomy, environmental mastery, personality integration, and an accurate perception of reality (Compton, 2001).

People with great mental health have a high self-esteem, strong sociable encouragement, and are members of warm, compassionate families (Zeman, 2003). Maintaining mental health over time is extremely important; however, risk factors exist for mental illnesses. Preserving mental health can be accomplished by three characteristics. First, having a low risk of disease or disability; second, functioning well, both mentally and physically; and finally, being fully engaged with life (Qualls, 2002). There are three main categories of risk factors for mental illness. Genetics can influence mental health by delaying development, causing physical illness, or producing a low IQ, which may result in problems in communication and academic failure. Another risk factor is the family and close relationships. Parental conflict, inconsistent discipline, abuse, loss of friendships, and parental mental illness are all factors that may lead to mental illness. External factors that may cause mental illness include socioeconomic status, discrimination, and poor education (Zeman, 2003).

Many mental health theories of structure exist to help in the understanding of the concept. Compton, Smith, Cornish, and Qualls (1996) believe mental health is divided into three areas: personal growth, subjective well-being, and the stress-resistant personality. Personal growth refers to the development of a person’s psychological qualities and potentials. The most well-known theory on the idea of personal growth is Maslow’s self-actualizing person theory. Subjective well-being refers to positive emotions and the outlook one has on life. Stress-resistant personality refers to the factors that increase physical health outcomes. Compton (2001) also adds the area of religiosity to mental health.

Not much research has been conducted on sense of humor and mental health. The purpose of this study is to determine a correlation between the two concepts. I am expecting to find a positive correlation.

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