Two people laughing
Humour is subjective: Learn to read the room before cracking certain kinds of jokes that others might find awkward or sensitive. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes, the joke lands. Sometimes, it misses and backfires.

Dubai-based Sharmeshta Chatterjee (name changed on request) was enjoying a pleasant dinner with a couple of her close friends recently. They were laughing about their past relationships and former partners. Everything was cheery, till her friend, in the midst of laughter, shared an anecdote about her past relationship that suddenly dampened the vibes in seconds: She related a story about how she baked some delicious pancakes for her partner, and in a fit of anger he threw them down the stairs.

She laughed. However, the silence at the table was deafening.

People strive to find humour in unusual situations, regardless of how their audience reacts. Kellie Shawn, an American Dubai-based podcast host, recalls speaking to people who have retrospectively found a little light humour in traumatising and chaotic hospital visits, including fighting with doctors over wrong diagnosis and getting into verbal duels with fellow patients. “It helped them to laugh over it, rather than just remembering the whole episode as something morbid and horrific, which they already know it was,” she says.

Humour: An antidote to stress

Women laughing
A good sense of humour during distress can alleviate anxiety: It releases endorphins, relieves stress and eases muscle tension. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When people are faced with overwhelming stress, people turn to humour as a way to lessen the emotional burden. As stressful feelings often translate to anxiety and fear, humour is a way to ward off these feelings, say psychologists.

In most situations, humour falls into the emotion-focused coping category, which means that it helps reduce stressful emotions, explains Ritasha Varsani, a Dubai-based psychologist. “Laughing does feel good and does have a positive impact on your well-being in different ways. It elevates our mood during stressful times and emotional strain,” explains Varsani. Having a good sense of humour during distress can release endorphins, hormones that relieve stress and ease muscle tension. It can counteract the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine. Lower cortisol levels promote relaxation and a sense of calm, she says.

hHumor and laughter elevate our mood during times of stress or emotional strain. Having a good sense of humor during distress can release endorphins, hormones that relieve stress and ease muscle tension....

- Ritasha Varsani, psychologist

It serves as a comforting antidote to stress.

Positive and negative humour

There are different kinds of humour, as Katherine McCleary, a Dubai-based psychologist explains.

The light-hearted cheer: This is simple and straightforward; a person just shared fun stories, anecdotes or witty tales that most people find funny and won’t get offended by.

Positive reappraisal: In this case, people look for the humorous aspects in a stressful situation. This is known as reframing the situation. This allows you to shift your perspective of the situation from a threat to a positive challenge.

Self-enhancing: This just means striving for a lighter outlook on life, having the ability to laugh at yourself for small failures and setbacks. You find humour in the oddities of daily life.

However, in the case of negative self-defeating humour, is a person making unflattering jokes about themselves to try and connect with others. “This shows a far deeper and systemic problem,” explains McCleary. This is not a person trying to find humour in a traumatic situation; this is a cry for help, she says. “The person is trying to score laughs by undermining themselves. This is an unhealthy manner of seeking validation,” she says.

Morbid humour

Confused person
Sometimes, people resort to morbid humour as a coping strategy. However, it becomes an escapist route as the person is trying to minimise their own anxieties. Image Credit: Shutterstock

And sometimes, people crank up the humour a notch by being morbid. This is referred to as dark humour; another coping strategy that has the potential to turn incredibly unhealthy and toxic as the experts explain. One famous example of dark comedy came from author Oscar Wilde while he was living in a cheap boarding house, when on his deathbed in 1900, his last words were supposedly: "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

Dark or such morbid humour is usually the culmination of overwhelming stress and trauma, says Katelyn Lauren, a Dubai-based neuropsychiatrist. “We feel some of our needs are being compromised in some way. So, we adopt some behaviours that will meet these needs, or stop them from being impacted,” she says. When we engage in such humour, we are usually overwhelmed by grief, sadness and shock. “Dark humour is like a brief relief, a form of amusement and cheer,” she says. It provides some perceived sense of control.

“When we’ve lost someone we love, or are suffering a brutal heartbreak, we feel that we have lost a sense of control. With the help of dark or morbid humour, we can choose to respond to everything that is going on. It provides us with a sense of control,” she says.

A bridge to connect with people?

Morbid humour is also a way to connect, even if superficially, when a deeper connection isn’t within your grasp. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes, people also resort to dark humour as a sort of bridge to connect with someone. “In the face of immense stress or trauma, isolation is claustrophobic,” explains Lauren. “We yearn for understanding, but offering comfort isn't always easy. When loved ones struggle to grasp our pain, their own discomfort might lead them to withdraw. This can be particularly isolating. In such situations, some turn to dark humor as a bridge,” she says. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are denying their share of hardship; it’s also a way to connect, even if superficially, when a deeper connection isn’t within your grasp. “It’s a desperate attempt to break isolation, and hoping that someone sees the sorrow in you,” she says.

However, while this kind of humour provides a brief relief, it can come at a cost. It could also mean that you’re trying to minimise your own anxieties. “You’re snatching at any kind of respite,” says Lauren. “Ironically, it can generate a chasm between people. Such humour depends on a person’s response, and is subjective. It can drive a further wedge and people can feel awkward and walk away,” she says. “It has the potential to upset others and create emotional turmoil,” says Lauren.

As she says, you need to read the room, too. Does your humour sit well with the people present?

It doesn’t have to be black and white

Moreover, constantly resorting to negative humour means that it becomes a toxic shield, preventing you from addressing your actual emotions. “If you keep trying to pretend you’re fine, you aren’t addressing your problems. This becomes a form of unhealthy denial and can culminate in aggression later, as we can’t keep relying on humour,” she says.

It doesn’t have to be good or bad; we can’t view it in black and white terms, says Lauren. It does help in navigating healing, but it can also compromise it. “It’s how you use it, that makes it a difference,” she says. Don’t make it a part of your personality and avoid dealing with your actual problems; that can drive people further away, and fuel further isolation and loneliness.