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Why Do People Need Humour to Get Through the Dark Times?

“Anyone who has grieved recognizes that although we may be less inclined to laugh, our ability to perceive humor is more or less preserved.” - Joseph Polimeni, Jeffery P. Reiss, 2006

A lot has happened in the last few years. Major events have shaped all life on earth. From the divisive politics over in the United States, and in the UK with the exiting of the European Union, to the current Coronavirus pandemic. Throw in acts of terrorism, and the constant threat of war hanging heavy overhead, and life can seem very precarious indeed. Strictly speaking, over the last fifty years or so humans have, arguably, lived through the best times of humanity. Medical and technological advancements are just a few of the things that have made living on this planet a less stressful place to be than say, a thousand years ago.

Image 1

However, as stated, there has been a bit of a dip in the last few years with recent events. Times have been tough for many, especially during the pandemic. With people experiencing loneliness and anxiety, and of course, extreme illness. Add in the problem of global warming and life can feel like the clock is ticking down and the final days of life could be nearer than previously thought! It begs the question, is humor a survival mechanism that is designed to get people through the turbulent times? Psychologists split humor up into three main categories:

  • Relief theory

  • Superiority theory

  • Incongruity theory

Relief theory - is the idea that humor is conducive to alleviating psychological tension. It enables people to get over stressful situations, for instance, a big life event such as getting married. Or facing a terrible fear. The stand-up comic, David Baddiel highlights this nicely in one of his routines: A holocaust survivor dies and finds himself at the gates of heaven. When God comes out to meet him He asks the man about his life. God then asks to hear a joke about the man's time in the Concentration camps. The man starts to tell his joke. God is not impressed and says that his joke is not funny, and the survivor replies, "Well, I guess you had to be there."

Superiority theory - is the notion that humor is directed at the misfortune of others. To laugh at another's failings or shortcomings can make people feel better about themselves. Everyone recognizes the feeling of falling over in front of others. It can be embarrassing, which is why strangers tend to laugh when it happens to someone else. Immediately, the social faux par is understood. There has been a plethora of comedians over the years that has used superiority theory to demonstrate how funny comedy can be produced. Laurel & Hardy and many more, that work in the genre of slapstick comedy where there is usually someone falling over or walking into a closed door.

Image 2

Incongruity theory - argues that humor occurs when two contrasting and distinct notions are brought together. In comedy, for example, a key ingredient to getting a laugh is to subvert expectations and surprise the audience. A very simple but lovely joke by Jimmy Carr illustrates this perfectly: “I had a survey done on my house. Eight out of 10 people said they really rather liked it.”

The category that seems to, if not answer the main question at hand, at least attempt to answer it coherently, is the Relief theory. Why do people need humour to get through the dark times? If theories are anything to go by, then this one seems to make perfect sense. The science behind the laughter is pretty incisive. There are biological changes that arise in the body when humans laugh. Laughing helps the body to release endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These are chemical changes in the body that scientists say can make anyone feel better in minutes. And the reverse is true. If negative thoughts are continually filtering through into the mind such as disappointment, fear, and loss, this can increase our anxiety and keep the psyche in a state of perpetual unhappiness. With this in mind, if adults or children are going through difficult times as a collective or individually, perhaps there might be the capacity for intervention by physically changing mental states. If people can somehow use distraction techniques from the harsh realities of life by watching, reading, or listening to a funny show, or keeping company with positive people, then perhaps everyone can all get through this current dark time with a little more ease.


  • Vaizey, M. (2020, February 21). Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel, BBC Two review - grappling with the incomprehensible. Theartsdesk.Com.

Visual Sources:

  • Image 1: Why Do We Use Dark Humor to Deal With Terrifying Situations? (2020, April 27). [ILLUSTRATION]. Why Do We Use Dark Humor to Deal With Terrifying Situations?

  • Image 2: Not a joke: leveraging humour at work increases performance, individual happiness, and psychological safety. (2021, April 28). [Photograph]. Https://Blogs.Lse.Ac.Uk/Businessreview/2021/04/28/Not-a-Joke-Leveraging-Humour-at-Work-Increases-Performance-Individual-Happiness-and-Psychological-Safety/.


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Peter Terrence

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