Posted on: December 2, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Marisa Bresnahan, JRN 111 Student

If you’re laughing at a photo of a friend’s self-induced pandemic haircut or chuckling at another meme about toilet paper, you may be doing one of the best things you can to help you cope with the stress of living through a pandemic.

“Humor has a way of lightening the situation,” says Moraine sociology professor Katarzyna Blahusiak. “It helps you deal with different conflicts.” 

As humans, we have a natural need for laughter, says communications professor Bill Hogan, who uses a theme of humor in some of his classes.

So that meme you saw of mitten-wearing Bernie Sanders sitting on a bench next to Forrest Gump, or the one where he’s wearing an animal skin lap robe as he sits in the midst of Game of Thrones characters, may actually be helping your mental health.

According to a recent study, people who viewed COVID memes show a lower level of stress and higher rates of efficient coping. The study, involving 748 people, was conducted by a team of researchers from the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Popular Media.

“Humor provides a way of reframing the events or situations in our lives so we see them differently,” says Robin Nabi, one of the study’s authors. “Instead of seeing the threat, which results in anxiety, humor leads us to focus on the incongruity or absurdity of a situation, which minimizes anxiety’s power.”

Blahusiak agrees that humor helps give us a different perspective in a stressful situation: “In a situation you only see one way, one side of the story, but when someone comes in and uses humor and laughter, it lets you relax a little bit and see a different angle of the situation.”  

Humor also creates common ground for relationships, says Blahusiak. “We are using the internet much more than we have ever used it before,” she says, and with us all spending so much time online and on social media, sharing memes has allowed us to connect despite social distance.

“Now during the pandemic, since people were unable to [meet in person], they were sending cute little messages and videos.” Blahusiak says, “therefore there is a much heavier use of humor and memes and funny things over the internet.”

The type of humor has changed as the pandemic has worn on, Hogan says, because “the form of humor is a reflection of our time.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw more light humor, Hogan says, such as memes about the nationwide toilet paper shortage, handwashing, or silly, home-done haircuts.

As the pandemic went on, the humor became darker, especially since the vaccine was released.

“I’ve seen a noticeable change in tone.” says Hogan. “I think a seminal moment in that is when President Donald Trump got COVID.” 

Hogan further explains that the people who were pro-vaccine have been known to laugh at what he calls “poetic justice.” As the pandemic stretches on, pro-vaccine people have less and less patience with people who deny the effects of COVID, leading to an increase in anger and a sense of humor based on irony.

Dark humor also can be found in a rise in depression-related memes. An article on Psychreg provides a study that describes the rise in depression memes in correlation with greeter amounts of sadness and death.

The study involves people from the ages 18-56 who completed a depression questionnaire. They were then separated into groups based on their severity. The group who had the most severe rate of depression found the depression memes funnier and more relatable than the group that did not.

People who go through traumatic events tend to find dark humor more appealing than people who have not. Dark humor was popular after both world wars, and it is gaining popularity again because of the pandemic.

However, regardless of if memes have more of a light hearted feel or have dark humor, they help people cope with stressful situations. That may be more important now than ever, as we continue to forge our way through a pandemic.

“Some people suggest you should avoid media about COVID if you don’t want to be stressed by it,” says Jessica Gall Myrick, lead author of the APA study, “but this research suggests that viewing something funny and culturally relevant about this stressful situation can actually help you feel better connected to other people while dealing with the stress of the pandemic.”