Laughter: The Best Medicine or Cause of Anxiety?

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For some people, laughter simply isn’t the best medicine. In the January-February issue of Utne Reader, we excerpted “When Humor Humiliates,” an article from Science News about our emerging understanding of gelotophobia, or the fear of being laughed at. For gelotophobes, who have difficulty distinguishing between good- and mean-spirited jokes, even friendly teasing can feel thoroughly unpleasant.

The personality trait long eluded recognition, researchers theorize, because shame is so central to a gelotophobe’s experience of laughter—and people are so understandably reluctant to talk about shame-filled incidents. In recent years, however, scientists at the University of Zurich, led by psychologist Willibald Ruch, have surveyed upwards of 23,000 people in over 70 countries, discovering varying degrees of geltophobia in every nation, affecting from 2 to 30 percent of the population.

 So how do you know if your personality tends toward the gelotophobic? The researchers at the University of Zurich have set up a website where interested individuals can take the 15-question GELOPH, a quick appraisal that scores fear of laughter and gives immediate feedback. To determine if the GELOPH assessment is appropriate, the researchers ask if any of the following questions apply in the affirmative:

Do you avoid social situations to avoid being laughed at or ridiculed?

Do you feel people around you bully you?

Do you worry that other people think you do not engage with them in a warm, friendly way and think you are humourless?

Do you find it hard to know what to say to people in a natural way?

Do you have low self esteem due to your feeling incompetent in social situations?

When people are talking and laughing, can you feel your body getting tense?

Does the muscle tension make you look stiff or clumsy?

Would you say you are not a lively person?

Would you describe yourself as rigid rather than spontaneous?

Do you think there have not been many joyful occasions in your life?

Do you worry that other people think you are ridiculous?

After a social event, do you feel you have appeared ridiculous and worry about it?

If the 15-question GELOPH indicates that someone does demonstrate some degree of the personality trait, there are several more in-depth assessments available, such as the Picture Geloph. Those tests don’t yield automated feedback; a psychologist will interpret and e-mail confidential analysis.