• Humor can be helpful, but it can also prove harmful—the key is to understand when and where humor is beneficial.
  • For example, humor can be used to cope in uncomfortable or embarrassing situations, as well as manage stress and anxiety.
  • On the flip side, humor can get in the way of addressing serious problems, such as a health concern or workplace issue.
  • Additionally, humor can damage your relationship if you use it at inappropriate times—such as when your significant other is trying to have a serious conversation with you.
  • As a general rule of thumb, humor is good, but should never be used as avoidance or in a way that will cause others harm.

Humor can help us cope during embarrassing or uncomfortable situations, as well as manage stress and anxiety. However, it isn’t always helpful—it can stand in the way of our addressing serious challenges and even cause harm to our relationships. This makes determining the appropriate time and circumstances for humor important.  

Humor: A Coping Mechanism

I have a distinct memory from middle school of a rather embarrassing fall in the cafeteria. I was walking up to the trashcan to throw away my lunch—and model my new Hollister shirt in the process, of course—when I slipped and landed flat on my back. The entire room erupted with laughter, while I laid there and basked in my embarrassment. I thought about running away and a tear even slid down my cheek. But instead of letting my embarrassment get the best of me, I decided to use humor to my benefit. I sat there, crossed my legs, looked up at my friend Caroline, and said, “How’s the weather up there?” Everyone laughed (this time with me, not at me).

Humor helped me cope with this embarrassing situation—which demonstrates one important function of humor. While humor is often viewed as a form of entertainment, it can come in handy in uncomfortable circumstances. Additionally, it helps us to cope with stress and anxiety, as cracking a joke can lighten the mood and even remind us of our humanity. Psychologist Zofia Czajkowska explains: “When people feel overwhelmed, too anxious to go deep and face the uncomfortable issue at hand, they often use humor to deflect from a grimmer or heavier reality. Use of humor to cope with stress is considered a very healthy coping strategy.” That said, humor isn’t always appropriate nor helpful. In fact, it can work against you. Here are two examples:

1. Avoidance of your problems

First, humor shouldn’t be used to circumvent any serious problems in your life. While it can take the edge off momentarily, it’s important you address serious problems head-on. “If [humor] is used only in order to avoid problems (rather than solve them), it can lead to even bigger problems,” Zofia explains. “For example, you may have a health concern and you laugh about the symptoms instead of getting it checked out. Or there is a bully at school or at your workplace but you minimize the magnitude of the problem by making jokes about it rather than intervening before the situation escalates.”

2. Damage to your relationships

Also, humor—when used poorly or at the wrong time—can damage your relationships. “In a relationship, your partner may be trying to have a vulnerable moment with you and your jokes can make them feel unheard, dismissed, or even humiliated creating a rift between you two,” Zofia explains. It’s okay to joke around with your significant other, but it’s important that you gage the timing and don’t turn to humor during serious moments.

Using Humor at the Right Time and in the Right Circumstances

In summary, humor can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to coping with stress, anxiety, and uncomfortable or embarrassing situations. However, it can also have negative effects when used inappropriately. “Overall: you should use humor a lot, but not to avoid discomfort, fear, or pain,” says Zofia. Additionally, make sure the timing and occasion is right when turning to humor in your relationships. And overall, just use your better judgment to decide if humor is appropriate or not.