Published on 01 April 2020
By Dr Tracey Platt is a Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland.
Here she discusses how humour and laughter are playing key roles in overcoming the fear many people are feeling in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
For all of you living your life on social media, due to social distancing, it is hard to avoid jokes about Coronavirus.
From Donald Trump with bunches, now he has been left on his own to do his own hair to the countless loo roll jokes there are endless pictures, cartoons and video clips currently whizzing through the network.
And all of them are based on one topic: our daily life that is suddenly turned upside down and like nothing that has ever been experienced in our lifetime.
What effect can humour have in such a time of national crisis?
Well, it is a psychological phenomenon that can make things easier to bear when faced with serious situations.
So even if you have not actively laughed about it the past few days you will certainly have been sent many corona cartoons by friends and relations who want to brighten up your day or help them remain connected.
The flood of internet videos and joke pictures that allude to this surreal life circumstance between home-working and quarantine and all the problems that bring is a logical response for us.
For many people, this is a situation that they experience for the first time. You try to deal with the unfamiliar circumstances in all possible ways, one such way is with humour.
One theory in humour research suggests that jokes only become interesting to us if the topic is of particular importance to us. The current jokes now reflect the situation that is currently the most salient thing going on at present.
In a situation where we have such uncertainty, strain and fear, reacting with humour also helps to reduce negative emotions and replace them with more positive ones.
During crises such as this pandemic, humour and the mechanisms that take effect enable people to laugh at the situation, and thus they become less afraid of it.
The many internet cartoons represent how people react to the new situation, and they also exaggerate reactions that are inadequate. People think that if I can laugh about it, I wouldn’t react that way myself. And that laughter can reduce the stress by helping us feel more in control and empowered.
One cannot be scared and amused at the same time. Well, you can but this combination is generally pleasurable, as it becomes exciting and thrilling.
There is also a phenomenon whereby information from body muscles that go along with emotional states make us feel that emotion.
If we have very tense muscles our thoughts are fixed in with fear, as this goes along with the flight or fight state. If, however, you can relax those muscles, breathe deeply and ensure there is no tension in the muscles, there will be a competition between fear and cheerfulness. One needs the body tense, the other needs a relaxed body. So even though this is happening cognitively, it will impact on our emotional state. We will feel less fear and more joy.
Ever since we have had societies, we have used the effects of laughing at someone or something, together in tense situations to either to stop someone doing something against a majority or to help the majority reduce a tense situation.
The basis of jokes is very often a situation that is not as it should be, but which I still have to face. And you laugh even more when you are in the same situation, you feel less alone. Here the saying “a trouble shared is a trouble halved” springs to mind.
Due to the social isolating and those keeping their distance from others, the internet and social media is the latest platform we can utilise. In ancient Greece, it would be the ampi-theatres where the comedies and tragedies were performed and politicians were made to address the people and be openly laughed at, if they did stupid things.
Humour has always been tied to the formats and popular ways of communicating of the time.
For example, when photocopiers were invented, jokes that had previously been told orally at gatherings could be reproduced and hung up.
Now it’s the time of TicTok and Instagram videos and pictures can be sent very quickly across the world.
This accessibility means one does not need to be original nor do we have to be the originator of the funny comments but can simply share these performances among our own social groups.
Whereas before we have the humour producers and the humour appreciators, we can now include the humour conduits, those who just want to share, to brighten up or day, or bust our inboxes, whichever way you want to look at it.