Have you ever noticed that the funniest people are often secretly sad?

To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.

– Charlie Chaplin

Comedians like Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry, Jim Carrey and Woody Allen are some of the funniest people we know. They make all of us laugh, but there is a darker side to their humor. All of the above have suffered from mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, sometimes with fatal effects.

Of course, not all comedians are depressed, any more than all poets or musicians are, but there does seem to be a link between these ways of expressing emotions and a darker core of despair.

So what is the link between humor and depression and what can we do to help our funniest friends?

Humor can have several psychological benefits, but some of these come with a downside.

1. Being funny can help us fit in

The quiet guy in class who has no friends makes a joke and suddenly he is the center of attention. He continues to make people laugh and finds his place with his peers, giving him a sense of belonging he has never experienced before.

The downside is that this can become such a strong part of a person’s character that they find it impossible to reveal their true feelings and ask for help if they need it. Ultimately, they fear that their less funny self will be rejected.

2. Being funny can mask our pain

Humor can be used as a mask that shields both the wearer and those around them, from the pain underneath. Humor can be a defense mechanism, protecting the comedians from the intrusion of others and convincing both themselves and others that everything is okay. However, using humor in this way avoids the need to actually address the underlying depression or pain.

3. Being funny can distract us

Making others laugh feels good and so it can distract funny guys and girls and offer a few moments of relief from dwelling on their inner torment. When the focus turns outward, they can avoid the pain of turning in and so humor can provide an escape from inner problems. Once again, though, using humor in this way can be dysfunctional because it avoids looking at the root cause of the depression or pain.

However, humor is not always used in a dysfunctional way, it can have positive physical and psychological benefits, too.

1. Humor can help us feel less alone

When a crowd laughs at a comedian there is a sense of a shared story a, ‘yes, I feel that way and I didn’t know others felt that way too’. This can help both the comedian and the audience feel a sense of belonging.

2. Humor combats fear

By changing perspectives, humor can challenge the things we are afraid of, bringing them into the light and making us feel more able to deal with them. When we look at our fears in a new way, they seem lighter, maybe even ridiculous. This is why so much humor has a darker element: if we can laugh at life’s difficulties, we can release the fear and feel more able to cope.

3. Humor reduces pain

In an article published in American Fitness, Dave Traynor, M.Ed, director of health education at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield Center, states: “After surgery, patients were told one-liners prior to administration of potentially painful medication. The patients exposed to humor perceived less pain as compared to patients who didn’t receive humor stimuli.”

4. Humor boosts the immune system

In 2006, researchers led by Lee Berk and Stanley A. Tan at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, found that and human growth hormone, which helps with immunity, increased by 87 percent when volunteers anticipated watching a humorous video.

5. Humor reduces stress

Laughing switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the fight or flight response. Neurochemicals such as endorphins are released relaxing the body. In addition, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are reduced.

So humor has real benefits to our health and well-being, but it can be used as a way to avoid dealing with deeper emotional issues. So, by all means, enjoy a good laugh as often as you can to reduce stress and promote a healthy immune system.

But keep an eye on the funniest people in your life who seem to have a compulsion to make others laugh. Make sure they know you are happy to share the deeper feelings behind their comic mask.


  1. Psychology Today
  2. Elite Daily
  3. Psych Central

Image: John J. Kruzel / American Forces Press Service via WikiCommons

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