Humor, Stress, Cognitive Appraisals
There have been a number of scientific studies that seem to buttress the argument that “laughter is the best medicine.” Humor seems to activate the brain’s reward centers, producing a number of neurochemicals that flood the brain. In addition, humor seems to have a relative effect upon cognition, the ability to handle stress, and an individual’s sense of self when faced with new or extraordinary stimuli.
Type of Article — The article under review, Coping Humour, Stress, and Cognitive Appraisals (1993), is an investigative study that describes the relationships between humor and the way the mind cognitively deals with stressful events using humor as a mitigating or coping mechanism.
Major Underlying Theories
Humor contributes to the Mind/Body Balance — Easies pain and anxiety, reduces stress, allows students to concentrate on curriculum and tasks as opposed to worrying about performance.
Humor maximizes brain power — Advertising proves that 60 seconds of humor will result in a message that is retained; why not switch the ad message to the academic message.
Humor enhances creativity — Creativity is the ability of the brain to bring together diverse ideas and generate new ways of looking at old things. The creative process flourishes when individuals are put into the mind set of divergent thinking and allowing humor to diminish anxiety.
Humor facilitates communication — Tennse situations are alleviated, humor generates trust, humor allows for an approach that says, “I am just like you.”
Humor supports the Change Process- While the brain craves order and familiar patterns, there are many times in public school that change occurs. Most of us experience unexpected change, which sometimes handicapps us. Change is good, laughter and tears are closely related; using emotion to help drive change affects numerous regions of the brain at the same time, fostering growth.
Hypothesis — The authors believe that humor is particularly valuable as a coping mechanism when humans are faced with stressful situations. This hypothesis is based on past literature reviews and the supposition that humor actually evolved within the human species as a way to cope with cognitive and social stressors.
Method — Research involved 44 female university students who participated in all three phrases of the study. The subjects were all enrolled in an introductory psychology course at a predominantly female college. They were all volunteers, mean age of 19, with a range of 18-30. Each participant filled out three self-report measures:
CHS — The Coping Humor Scale is a 7 item scale that provides a measure of the degree that individuals maintain a sense of humor in stressful situations — or how they use humor to cope with stress.
WCS — The Ways of Coping Scale is a 67 item self-report inventory that focuses on the 8 major domains of coping strategies humans typically use.
PSS — The Perceived Stress Scale is a 14 item measure that looks at cognitive and emotional aspects in relation to global stress levels — focusing on the ways the individual’s life can be unpredictable, uncontrollable and overwhelming.
The participants were all tested during three time periods: 1) one week prior to the course midterm; 2) immediately post-exam; and 3) one week later. By the final assessment, individuals had received their exam score.
Findings — Previous studies have shown strong correlation between humor and stress; witness the dark humor of those in highly stressful careers (pathology, law enforcement, morticians, etc.). However, of particular relevance in this research is the actual proven relationship between cognitive function and coping mechanisms with humor. Individuals with a higher sense of humor have a stronger sense of self, they are able to perform better on tests, they are able to discriminate cognitively to a greater degree and their recovery and ability to perform in stressful situations is far greater than those with lower thresholds. These same individuals make initial cognitive appraisals about potential stressors in a more positive manner — one that allows for solutions rather than impotence.
Validity — Prior to the exam, scores on the CHS were not significantly correlated with the individual’s expected marks or other judgments. Regression analysis indicated that the higher the individual’s humor threshold, the less stress they felt about their performance on exams. Once the performance was known on the exam, however, it was clear low humor individuals experienced greater stress even when actual performance exceeded their initial expectations. The higher the humor score, the more the individual was able to place positive distance between their actions and tangible outcomes; they did not interpret their performance on the exams to be as indicative of their own personal worth as much.
Theoretical Support – The key to the brain mind connection can be found in a complex set of molecules called neuropeptides. Petptides are made up of amino acids, the very basic building blocks of protein strucutres. There are, in fact, 23 different amino acids, and peptides are amino acids strung together very much like a string of beads on a necklace. Peptides are found in most areas of the body, but especially the brain and immunie system. Neurally, there are a number of different peptides, including endorphins. Neuropeptides are the way that cellular communication occurs, including brain-to-brain messages, brain-to-body messages, body-to-body messages, and body-to-brain messages. Individual cells have receptro units (sites) that are specifically set up to receive neuropetptides. Humor, in fact, helps send the types of chemical messages that enhance cognition, learning, and as noted, the body’s ability to combat stress and increase good feelings. Additional, the authors cite two decades of study that buttress these arguments.
Limitations — Gender was one limitation to the study, as only females were used in the questionnaires. Second, there was only one cohort used, and it might be beneficial to see if there was any correlation between gender, age (maturity), cultural background, time sequence (longitudinal), and even level of education. One might assume that there are cultural and educational differences in handling stress; potential issues with maturity as well. The study should be expanded to take into account different social and gender groups, different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and a broader spectrum of academic life. Of interest would also be the type of student and school, and whether an Ivy League individual felt greater stress than a community college student, or whether stress and humor levels are more consistent with personality than location or demographics and psychographics. Finally, the article is about two decades old, there has been a great deal of additional research on neuroscience and neuro chemicals in these last few decades, and of course, this article does not address.
Implications – Humor tends to create an optimal environment for teaching and learning — Humor optimizes learning because it allows for a more egalitarian and inclusive environment. Leadership is based on building and maintaining trust. Trust is the basis for creating success within a team, as well as the foundation of positive relationships. A strong bond of trust within the classroom will allow for greater trust and expression in students. Additionally, humor techniques could be used to decrease the stress level or phsyical/psychological reactions of those who feel unable to cope with learning and other stresses.
It would be a mistake to negate the increasing demands of contemporary society and the accelerated pace that contribute to stress in the home, office, or workplace. By sheer economic necessity, organizations and individuals must be ready at all times to glean as much productivity per worker per day as possible. The complexity of the modern workplace combined with the realities of life have consequences — stress. In the workplace, stress may lead to poor work performance, a lack of concern for safety issues, and a general lack of performance that translates into a monetary loss for the company. This is particularly true for manufacturing segments, since the emphasis is on production and the needs of the company remain fairly constant. Stress reduction; whether it be from exercise, diet changes, bio-feedback, meditation, hobbies, or other forms unique to the individual, is so very important that many believe reducing stress would pay off in fiscal dollars by reducing medical issues.
Future Research — The authors also note that more sets of cognitive processes need to be measured in relation to humor. Additionally, it is likely that humor not only has cognitive benefits, but very well may have physical benefits as well. Which domains, and how those domains are used are further areas of inquiry.
Kupier, N., Martin, R. (1993). Coping Humour, Stress and Cognitive Appraisals. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science. 251 (1): 81-96.
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