Why do some people smile unnecessarily

Humor and psyche

The punch line throws everything upside down

Laughter and humor go together, but they are not the same thing. The former is a reaction from our body that we cannot control. A standardized pattern runs reflexively. In humor research, laughing at a joke we hear is best studied.

After the language center has done its job, the areas of the brain come into play that have something to do with our expectations of the world and our knowledge of the world. Because the typical thing about a joke is that it initially leads us on the wrong track. We then form a hypothesis, i.e. make a guess as to what will happen next.

Then comes the punch line and completely throws our hypothesis overboard. This is the moment when at best we can get the hang of it and understand what is actually meant. This grasp of the punch line takes place on the outside of the left frontal lobe.

If we like this unexpected twist that reveals the punchline, parts of the limbic system become active. The area of ​​the brain that processes emotions. The so-called almond kernels, for example, give us the emotion of amusement.

Finally, when the control region in the brain, which normally blocks outbursts of feeling, waves through the emotion of amusement, the vocal cords, diaphragm and facial muscles come into play. And you can laugh. All of this happens in fractions of a millisecond.

Humor is a matter of character

Unlike the motoric process of laughing, humor is a character trait. An inner attitude or attitude that one has about life. Different from person to person, it says something about the way we deal with events in our environment. Do we get frustrated by situations in which things go worse or can we look at them with a certain serenity and maybe even smile about them in retrospect?

Humor also has to do with how we meet and communicate with other people. Do we manage to put our counterpart in a positive mood every now and then or even to make them laugh? Even if it may not seem so at first glance with some contemporaries: Everyone has a sense of humor - even if not the same.

In humor research one speaks of four different types of humor: connecting, self-strengthening, aggressive and self-devaluing. Those who use the common sense of humor want to make dealing with other people as pleasant and relaxed as possible. So it's a positive style of humor. This also includes the self-strengthening variant. It helps not to lose your nerve in stressful moments, but rather to face the situation with humor and thus to keep track of things.

Someone who likes to joke at the expense of others, exposing them in order to exalt themselves, has an aggressive sense of humor. This variety is also attributed to the negative style of humor as is the self-devaluing humor. Here, however, the aim of the mockery is oneself. With jokes about personal inadequacies or weaknesses, you want to gain favor with others.

Humor can be trained

The positive effect of humor on patient recovery is now well known. For more than 20 years, clowns have been out and about in hospitals in Germany, making physically ill people laugh. But psychiatrists and psychotherapists have also recognized that they can use humor to treat mental illnesses.

Depressed patients are usually dejected and rarely laugh. You feel little to no joy. It is not, however, that people who suffer from depression do not recognize a joke as a joke. Rather, it could be said that they temporarily lost their sense of humor. Accordingly, when the depression subsides, their sense of humor comes back. A humor training can support them in this.

Because humor can be trained, says humor researcher Prof. Barbara Wild. The patients think about what they liked to laugh about beforehand and with whom. They also worry about the opposite. There are also various exercises on the program, for example from improvisational theater. Here the participants then train to be spontaneous. They stand in a circle and have to tell a story.

However, everyone is only allowed to contribute one word, then it's the turn of the next. You can't prepare for it, because after all, nobody knows what term the neighbor will use until he has said it. It's about practicing associating and just saying what comes into your head.

From 2014 to 2016, a pilot study on the subject of humor training with cardiac patients was carried out at the Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart. The psychiatrist and neurologist Prof. Barbara Wild examined together with Dr. Eckart von Hirschhausen asked whether the stress that the test subjects experience in certain everyday situations can be reduced through humor.

To this end, the patients practiced in a seven-week humor training course to process their anger with humor, instead of the usual anger or other negative emotions. Before and after the study, detailed stress questionnaires were filled out and the stress hormone cortisol was determined.

The result: "It was fascinating to see how people developed further in the course of the sessions," says Prof. Barbara Wild. Because the humor training seems to work with cardiological patients. The study showed that they are less depressed and easier to cheer up afterwards. This was also confirmed by the cardiological measurements.