The sad clown is a well-established cultural trope, but it’s also a psychologically verified part of the human condition. What’s more, it seems sad clowns grow from sad kids. Of course, not all sad kids grow into funny adults, but this pattern appears ubiquitous for a number of legitimate reasons. Humor is a coping skill rooted in resilience, and when people have something to overcome it makes sense that they might become more adept at laughing through the pain.
“Trauma can lead to overcompensation through humor, intellectualization, or over-achievement in a number of ways,” psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin says. “Humor is actually one of the highest forms of defense mechanisms to cope with pain.”
Irwin would know – she’s not only a psychologist, but she also used to be a comedian.
But the link between early pain and a sense of humor was acknowledged long before psychologists like Irwin came along. The connection was first acknowledged by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who suspected that humor helped people build themselves back up after being knocked down. Later philosophers like Kant and Kierkegaard built on that idea. They believed that the core of humor was a sense of incongruity, and a difficult childhood was incongruent with the joy and wonder of being a kid.
Contemporary psychological research has built on the philosophical foundation. Recent theories suggest that humor not only curbs depression and hopelessness but also might be an adaptive response for some people. Psychologists expanding humor research at Stanford University, note that humor is a result of what they call “benign violation.”
“Before people could speak, laughter served as a signaling function. As if to say, ‘This is a false alarm, this is a benign violation,’ ” Peter McGraw, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told The Atlantic. “There’s a threat there, but it’s safe. It’s not too aggressive, and it’s done by someone you trust.”
Essentially, humor is the emotional equivalent of falling, jumping back up, and yelling “I’m OK!”
A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology helps explain this idea further by analyzing the childhoods of over 200 professional performers. Results reveal that the more adverse childhood experiences participants had, the more intense their creative experiences were as well. While they did not look at comedians specifically, a clinical psychologist and study co-author Dr. Paula Thomson notes that these individuals were more likely to display personality qualities that are conducive to humor, such as the ability to quickly respond to situations with wit and frankness. She believes this is tied to resilience, a personality quality characterized by the ability to recover from adversity.
“The incredible timing that is essential for comedy may be a gift or it may be a marker of resilience,” Thomson says. “I personally believe that some form of resilience is evident in both those who appreciate humor and those who are witty.”
A large body of research suggests that resilience acts as a buffer for pain and this quality is strongly associated with creativity. Thomson believes that early hardship isn’t the only progenitor to resilience and humor. She notes that many other variables also contribute to the capacity to cope in this way, like social support, secure attachment, exposure to humor, and intelligence.
Nancy Irwin agrees that resilience may be the secret ingredient for turning sad kids into funny adults, but notes that the type of trauma matters. Specifically, people who experienced some level of abandonment or neglect are especially drawn to humor as a way of psychologically reconciling it. This is not always a good thing and it can be a response that fatally backfires when it’s not combined with resilience and other coping skills. Humor in itself can’t be the only antidote to pain, because no one is capable of being funny all the time.
“Stand-up comedy is a solo art form. The comic has an endless need to get attention, to finally be seen and heard,” Irwin says. “Having been one myself for 10 years, I saw several suicides, lots of self-harm, and depression. Feeling invisible was my assessment for a large percentage of these cases.”