Can Humor Hurt?

Humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. Most people are able to experience humor – be amused, smile or laugh at something funny and they are therefore considered to have a sense of humor. People who do not have a sense of humor are considered strange or boring.

It is generally known that humor contributes to higher subjective wellbeing (both physical and psychological). Research has proposed two types of humor and each of them consists of two styles, making four styles in total. The first two styles among the four are adaptive while the last two styles are maladaptive. The maladaptive types of humor are aggressive humor and self-defeating humor. This type of humor is associated with poorer overall psychological wellbeing with emphasis on higher levels of anxiety and depression. Therefore, humor may have detrimental effects on psychological well-being too.


The relationship between humor and mental health is complicated, as it can sustain life yet can hinder development too. Humor most of the times is expressed as jokes. These jokes that are coated with fun and glee are sometimes disguised expressions of prejudice, hatred and ridicule. This kind of humor is predominantly expressed as sarcastic jokes.

People reason that sarcasm is harmless but we cannot deny the fact that sarcasm always involves left handed compliment against another person. This later metamorphoses into sarcasm of the worst level which is called bullying.

Humor abusers want us to be convinced that their jokes are funny. But, in reality, they are intimidations or disparage in disguise. The abusers may say they did not mean to hurt and may totally brush off victims’ reactions telling them to stop being over dramatic.

There is fine line between hilarious and hurtful or exasperating. Many times, we tend to smudge this line. In Freud’s view,jokes by a harsh superego creates a biting and sarcastic type of humor. He suggested that jokes were true, serving two purposes: aggression (sarcasm) or to expose unconscious desires.

Sarcasm has slowly become the most liked form of humor. There are far too many TV shows that add up which use sarcastic humor as a method of creating laughter among the audience. Sarcasm serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it helps to mask the underlying anger, secondly, it also helps the abuser to withdraw saying he was just being funny or it was just a joke. Thirdly, it bounces the ball back to the victim stating the victim was just being sensitive or childish and overly reacting to an innocent joke.

Handling Hurtful Humor

To sum up, humor abuse or sarcasm is an unhealthy and also a passive-aggressive way of coping. If someone is using sarcasm to hurt, ridicule or to damage our self-esteem, then we must stand up against it. Speaking up for overselves or being assertive is one of the best way to cope with sarcasm or hurtful humor.

Different situations need to be addressed differently and multiple strategies may be used to deal with hurtful humor. We have to make certain that we donot pretend that the sarcastic joke was funny thereby motivating the abuser. We must express that we felt insulted and we did not like being the person who faces the burn.Standing up for our own rights, being direct and honest about sarcasm is the best way to deal with it. We must put ourselves first and we must refuse to justify the abuser. We must express that it made us unhappy.

Retaliating with a similar hurtful joke is used as an option by many to deal with sarcasm but it is again a passive aggressive way of dealing. And  it can start a whole new war of ‘who can be more sarcastic.’ Being direct and clearly speaking up against sarcasm is the best method to deal with it. Walking away, not engaging or not responding to sarcasm or at last cutting ties with sarcastic people are also methods that people use to deal with sarcastic people but these are passive methods. Being assertive is the best method to deal with any kind of passive-aggressive humor.


Kuiper & Martin (1993). Humor and self-concept. Humor-International Journal of Humor Research. 6. doi:10.1515/humr.1993.6.3.251

Kuiper, Grimshaw, Leite., & Kirsh (2004). Humor is not always the best medicine: Specific components of sense of humor and psychological well-being. Humor: International journal of Humor Research. 17. doi:10.1515/humr.2004.002.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1905)

William Berry, LMHC., CAP. The Second Noble Truth  ‘The Joke’s On Who?’ Posted Feb 17, 2013

Binu Thomas has a Master’s degree in Mental Health (Psychiatric) Nursing from Jamia Hamdard University, New Delhi, India. She is working as a lecturer and is involved in teaching and research guidance of undergraduate and post graduate nursing students.























Can Humor Hurt?


APA Reference
Thomas, B. (2019). Can Humor Hurt?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2019
Published on All rights reserved.