The death of Robin Williams has sparked some discussion about why some of the funniest people also seem to be the saddest. But is there really a link between humor and depression?
Though research on the topic is limited, there are a couple of competing theories out there. One is from the late New York City psychologist Samuel Janus, who looked at the link between Jewish humor and tragedy. A 1978 article in TIME describes his conclusions:
Jewish humor is born of depression and alienation from the general culture. For Jewish comedians , [Janus] told the recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, "comedy is a defense mechanism to ward off the aggression and hostility of others."
Over the 10 years Janus spent on his research, he also found that many of the comedians he interviewed (not exclusively Jews) had experienced significant trauma during their childhoods. Many had also been in therapy.
“Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy,” Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada told Slate. And while that's likely a exaggeration based on anecdotal—not scientific—evidence, Masada does host a therapy program for its comics. “They didn’t get enough love. They have to overcome their problems by making people laugh.”
Research from Oxford University published earlier this year surveyed 523 comedians and compared them to a control group. Their finding? "The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis—both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," study author Gordon Claridge, of the University of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology, told the BBC. He said comedians may use their act as a form of self-medication.
But not all researchers agree that comedians are necessarily—or even often—depressed and troubled when compared with the rest of the population.
"People think comedians have these really dark personalities, but a lot of people have dark personalities and most of them don’t become comedians. You actually have to be pretty well-adjusted to be successful in the world of entertainment because it’s so competitive," says Peter McGraw, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.
"Most people have demons. The folks in the audience may be alcoholics, or they’ve been divorced. They just don’t have the spotlight," he says. "Our research has shown that the act of trying to be funny makes people seem more troubled than they might actually be. We hear about the Belushis and the Pryors, but we ignore the Seinfelds and the Cosbys."
McGraw's research, which hasn't been published yet, looked at how humor influenced people's impression of a given person. He and a team of researchers had a group of comedians and non-comedians write either a funny story or an interesting story. Then, a separate group of people read the stories and shared their impression of the psychology of the story's author. Those who wrote the funny stories were rated as more troubled. "Humor plays on taboos. It talks about things that are wrong. You have to act a little foolishly and disclose information that makes people laugh," says McGraw.
There's no consensus, clearly, on the link between humor and depression, but the fact that someone who brought people so much joy could be so unhappy underlines the complexity of depression, a disease that can afflict anyone, at any time.