Psychology of Humor: Interview with Comedian Amer Zahr (Video)

Humor is an emotional-cognitive strategy that is used by the entirety of the world’s population to some degree.

Humor is an emotional-cognitive strategy that is used by the entirety of the world’s population to some degree.

“Life would be so tragic… if it weren’t so funny.” – Stephen Hawking

What do we mean by humor? World-renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow defined it as such in the context of healthy interpersonal functioning, “especially well-adjusted individuals are characterized by a particular style of humor that is non-hostile, philosophical, and self-depreciating while remaining self-accepting” (Martin, 2007). This means that certain forms of humor such as criticizing or manipulating others or oneself (aggressive or self-defeating humor), disparaging others (putting people down) or even inappropriate humor (sexual or racist topics) ultimately will not benefit the overall well-being of the individual; it will  serve to reinforce an unhealthy interpersonal style and isolate the individual instead of opening the door to genuine opportunities of trust, affection, and bonding.

Conversely, we have affiliative humor which is humor intended to amuse others, facilitate relationships and reduce interpersonal tensions and self-enhancing humor which relates to maintaining a balanced and humorous perspective in the face of stress or adversity. In this way; humor becomes an emotional-regulation mechanism by which individuals use humor as a way to cope, manage, deal with and even elevate themselves through laughter, spontaneous witty thoughts, perceiving ‘negative’ situations as absurd or hilarious or more generally painting the world through a lens of mindful self-appreciation, instead of mournful self-alienation (as Walter O’Connel noted “humorous people are skilled in rapid perceptual-cognitive switches in frames of reference”). This is a superpower of sort that paralyzes the feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and helplessness from penetrating one’s outlook on the world. In fact, researchers have found that humor is correlated with healthier defensive coping styles; greater use of planful problem-solving, positive reappraisal, distancing oneself from a stressful/threatening event and emotional self-management (Abel, 2002).

Mental health is often viewed in negative terms; those who are ‘labeled’ with certain diagnoses are viewed as abnormal or even distorted. The ‘blame’ must shift away from the individual and unto the disease itself; if we identify depression as a fixed point in the repertoire of a person’s cognitive-emotional tool belt, it gives little room to maneuver with creative and novel approaches to help that person. “Why would a depressed person benefit from humor?” “Aren’t they just sad all the time?”,  although this may be the case; studies have shown individuals who are clinically depressed have higher emotional disturbances (one facet of ED being low trait humor). Although it’s important to note that human socio-emotional functioning is malleable; Kupier et al. (1998) found that a higher sense of humor in psychiatric patients was positively correlated with higher self-esteem, higher positive mood and lower depression. Relating back to the different types of humor; researchers found that individuals with higher levels of depression tended to report less uses of self-enhancing and affiliative humor but greater uses of self-defeating/aggressive humor (Frewen, 2008).

Humor is an emotional-cognitive strategy that is used by the entirety of the world’s population to some degree. As we switch to a preventative model of mental health; let’s look for warning signs and alleviate them in their place. What type of humor do you engage in with your friends? There is a delicate line between teasing and mocking; be cognizant that your approach isn’t serving to put people down at the behest of your own ego. Do you see your friends constantly putting up self-defeating memes or gifs? This may be a warning sign for something more severe happening in their life. There is a tendency in our generation towards apathy and self-criticism that is manifested in these memes, many of which blatantly indicate self-harm and suicide as the only rational approach towards life problems. I know we may think this is just ‘funny’ or ‘harmless’, but let’s be wary of creating an atmosphere where this type of humor is tolerated, if not venerated. As the Western world devolves into a world of materialism and nihilism, let us hold onto our Islamic values and principles which give us a pathway in expressing gratitude towards all of God’s abundant gifts, especially the gift of existence:

“And remember when your Lord proclaimed; If you are grateful, I would certainly give you more; and if you are ungrateful and deny, my chastisement is truly severe.”


Amer Zahr is a Palestinian-American comedian, speaker, writer, academic, and adjunct professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law; he is best known for his humor revolving around the nuances and intricacies of being an Arab-American and a Muslim-American in the West. In this episode, Amer recounts how he shifted into the world of comedy during his time studying law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, what makes comedy appealing as a Muslim and how he navigates the blurred lines of being offensive vs. being ‘good at what he does’ in the world of comedy.