Why Humor Is So Effective as a Coping Strategy After Tragedy

“The things that are bad in our life can also be good fodder for comedy."

Laughing Fool

This Sunday night, I’m thinking about humor as a coping strategy. This happened on a mass scale earlier this week. In the aftermath of the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, as Americans reckoned with and debated this country’s relationship with guns, the most unlikely thing emerged: A joke about feral hogs. These jokes spun out of one man’s earnest tweet about needing guns to take down feral hogs and multiplied by thousands (within three to five minutes).

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

For the people who don’t actually deal with feral hogs (which are actually a big problem) the absurd concept, and the extremely specific way the tweet was phrased, offered a brief reprieve from the horrors outside and an opportunity to participate in a collective challenge of making others laugh.

Why it was so funny to some connects back to humor’s ability to rise from negative situations. Peter McGraw, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, director of the Humor Research Lab, and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Something he and colleagues have established is that humor can emerge from benign moral violations. These are threats to worldviews that still manage to come off as harmless — programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep are full of them.

“The things that are bad in our life can also be good fodder for comedy,” McGraw tells me. “The act of making jokes is about transforming these violations and transforming them into something that is laugh-worthy. It allows us the opportunity to see situations differently.”

The secondary benefit, he explains, is that we in turn laugh about it and experience positive emotions. Studies show that when we hear a joke that works for our particular sense of humor, our brain likes it. When a punch line hits, the brain’s reward system lights up and the brain releases “feel good” neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.

What allows violations to come off as funny is a certain amout of psychological distance, and this is mediated by four dimensions: spatial, temporal, social, and mental. McGraw explains that psychological distance is what psychologists call a moderator — it can either turn up or turn down an effect. So, if we’re thinking about the feral hog situation, living in New York likely makes the concept of feral hogs much funnier than if you live in Texas. That’s connecting to the “spatial” dimension. It also nudges the “mental” dimension as well, which works off the idea that hypothetical events aren’t as threatening as real ones.

“Things that seem absurd are immediately encoded as unreal — even if it’s actually something that is real,” McGraw says. “That can help enhance the likelihood that it’s seen as amusing.”

What’s funny and helpful for coping with hardships to one person may not be funny to the next because of differing morals and backgrounds. The trick for comedians is finding the funny thread that connects large groups of people.

For example, comedian and friend of mine Rollie Williams hosts a show that’s centered around a very real and scary thing that we’re all having to cope with. In An Inconvenient Truth: The Talk Show Williams talks climate change and emulates the persona of Al Gore. Being Gore, he explains, in part helps make the funniness happen because climate change is, you know, not funny.

“I think climate change is this weird hydra of being simultaneously the most dramatic, horrible thing in the world, and the most boring thing,” Williams says. “It’s such a weird conundrum. If you could perfectly craft a thing to take down the human race, I think you would come up with climate change.”

But Williams has discovered that humor can help bypass the most boring thing in the world part, and get people to “relate to climate change and be able to fear it without immediately turning their brains off.” Climate change becomes understandable through comedy.

And that comedy helps us cope. In 2000 researchers demonstrated in the journal Humor that humor can both prevent negative emotions, and serve as a cure, which means that the coping effects of humor are pretty flexible. In this experiment, participants watched a video of a standup routine and a compilation of graphic fatality scenes. When people watched the standup before the scary video, it caused the second video to feel less stressful. Meanwhile, when they watched the standup afterward, it was able to reduce some of the anxiety that was ignited by the first video.

Gabe Bergado, a comedian, Teen Vogue editor, and another friend of mine (I have lots of funny friends) sees humor as a coping mechanism that works because, when one is out of options or feels a lack of control over a situation, sometimes the only way to process that is through a joke.

“I think sometimes cracking jokes about a heavy subject matter, something like trauma, is part of the healing process,” Bergado says. “When you first have to face that sort of damage, it’s often just vocalizing that it happened. But to continue talking about it, sometimes it’s easier to do it through a joke or a bit.”

“When there’s nothing else you can do about something, why not get a laugh out of it anyway?”

Which is probably how we ended up with “Green Shirt Guy.” Sometimes when everything feels chaotically absurd around you, you just got to break down in giggles.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.