Intimate love — 08 June 2007
Does humor enhance relationships?

When singles are asked to list the desired traits of their future mate, a good sense of humor is rated very high among the ranked attributes. Professional counselors also believe that a good sense of humor is a great asset for couples. Yet, research findings are mixed about the benefits of humor in stress reduction and in aiding couples’ interactions.

Interestingly enough, some medical researchers found a relationship between humor and the immune system, while others failed to support it. Drs. Martin and Dobbin of the University of Western Ontario, Canada found that humor does help increase an immune hormone that reduces the effects of stress. Dr. Dowling and others at the University of Massachusetts discovered that children with cancer who had higher coping humor made better psychological adjustment to the disease and experienced fewer incidences of infections than did the children with low scores.

However, a Finnish study by Paavo Kerkkanen and others did not find that greater sense of humor produced better health. In fact, they found that humor was related to “higher body mass, increased smoking and greater risk of cardiovascular disease”. Similar findings were reported by Sven Svebak and associates in a very large Norwegian study.

Dr. Abel of Western Carolina University did find that humor moderates stress, but only in one way. When humor was low, stress and anxiety were higher, but no relationship was found between humor and stress when humor was high. These findings were found only in men-not in women.

Though the research findings are perplexing, the social and emotional benefits people experience through shared humor are very consistent.
Most people appreciate a person, who has a good sense of humor that does not entail laughing at someone, but rather seeing the lighthearted side of life.

Laughter is also enjoyed as a way to relax, gain a less serious perspective and feel more positive about the idiosyncrasies of daily stress. It also helps to be validated knowing that others also find many shared life events as equally troublesome, yet normal and manageable.

Laughter has been accepted as a healthy de-stressor. One cannot be anxious and laugh at the same time. Drs. Berk and Tan of Loma Linda University in California have shown in their many studies that “laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, boosts the immune system and produces a general sense of well- being.”

As in most other aspects of life, there are gender differences in what men and women find entertaining. According to Dr. Eric Bressler, a psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, women desire a man who is a humor “generator”, while men seek a humor “appreciator”. Men respond well to a woman who laughs at their jokes, while women are attracted to the wit in men’s humor.

Couples who can chuckle at themselves during an argument, are better able to diffuse some of the stress in their conflicts. Yet, humor must be used appropriately. When an individual resorts to joke telling or humor about issues that his/her mate sees as serious – hurtful feelings may follow. This type of lighthearted reaction may be a form of avoidance or even insensitivity to the partner’s emotions. People who repeatedly attempt to connect through telling jokes may be actually avoiding intimacy.

As in most issues in life, humor needs to be used appropriately and carefully. It is a very positive and intimate experience when two people simultaneously find something funny and amusing. Yet, when it is used to deflect emotions, it may distance the mates.

• Use humor and laughter with each other, it is a positive and intimate way to connect.
• Avoid humor when your partner introduces a serious subject. It may feel to your partner as an insensitive, dismissive and disrespectful reaction.
• Abstain from telling jokes to everyone you meet. Though the jokes are entertaining, a constant diet of them deprives you from getting to know your listener.
• Humor that involves discounting another person- is not funny or healthy.
• Lightheartedness about your ongoing hassles can be helpful, provided that both of you are comfortable with it. If one of you objects – it must cease.
• Respond authentically to humor. Laugh when it is amusing and object when it is uncomfortable. Being polite and tolerating hurtful humor damages both of you and your relationship.
• Couples who share laughter and humor appropriately state that they are better able to deal with life’s stresses and are emotionally and physically more intimate.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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