Coping Through Comedy and Connection

6 min read

I heard about Matthew Perry’s sudden death from two friends who reached out via text, in part because they know I study parasocial relationships (imagined intimacy) with media figures, but also because we all grew up watching Friends and feeling some sense of cozy kinship to the silly, warm-hearted group of young people who were part of our weekly lives for so many years. In fact, the news of his loss inspired an involuntary gasp, and felt not unlike hearing about the death of a popular and beloved high-school classmate.

There is so much horror and violence unfolding in the world these days that reflecting on a celebrity death and its psychological implications can seem perhaps less critical by comparison. However, as a New York Times article described how some Ukrainians have reacted to Matthew Perry’s recent death illuminates, not only did Friends touch generations of people around the world since the mid-’90s through its endless rebirth on streaming platforms, but the show and its characters also may carry special weight because of the power of both comedy and surrogate “friends” to help mitigate emotional strain and distress.

As Ulia Po told the New York Times, “…I have a lot of emotions for this show…Back then, when I escaped Crimea, I was depressed and I watched it and watched it, and it helped.”

Benefits of Comedy

A fairly large body of research suggests that exposure to comedy can mitigate stress or negative mood. In fact, according to two research studies conducted during the original run of “Friends” (Szabo, 2003; Szabo et al., 2005), watching an episode of “Friends” had mood-improving benefits on par with 20 minutes of exercise or listening to music, relative to control conditions (e.g., watching a documentary or sitting quietly).

Why should comedy be good for our health? As research by my colleague Michele Tugade has found, leaning into moments of positive emotion, however brief or seemingly trivial, can help shore up resilience for both short- and long-term health benefits. Experiencing emotions such as joy can help undo the negative physiological effects of stress and return our body and our mind to more adaptive baseline levels more quickly.

This is in step with the “broaden-and-build” theory (Fredrickson, 2004), which posits that positive emotions enable us to think more broadly and creatively, facilitating play and strong social relationships. An “upward spiral” may be set in motion whereby positive emotions and divergent thinking are mutually reinforcing and contribute to increased resilience over time. As Frederickson (2004) notes, far from being a trivial perk of our social and emotional lives, “positive emotions fuel human flourishing.”

Given what we know about the toxicity of long-term stress on the mind and body (van der Kolk, 2014) and the increased trauma confronting so many people around the globe, it is all the more important to appreciate bright moments of humor and joy when we can find them. Revisiting Matthew Perry’s comedic legacy may literally be good for your health.

It is important to note, however, that not all comedy or styles of humor are conducive to emotional well-being. Mean-spirited or disparaging humor can disinhibit antisocial attitudes and prejudice (Ford et al., 2015), and chronically engaging in aggressive or self-defeating humor can be associated with worse psychological outcomes (Martin et al., 2003).

However, using humor for purposes of coping (e.g., “If I am feeling depressed, I can usually cheer myself up with humor.”) or to affiliate with others (e.g., “I enjoy making people laugh.”) has been found to be associated with greater emotional well-being. It is, thus, important to be mindful about what and whom you are laughing at.

Benefits of Parasocial Bonds

One of the core features of a “parasocial relationship” is the perception that a favored media figure is “like an old friend” (Rubin et al., 1985). Although we may feel sheepish about having strong emotional connections to media characters, it turns out that even imagined friends can help offset the pain of insecurity or rejection.

Research by Derrick et al. (2008) has found that writing about a favorite character can bring individuals with low self-esteem closer to their ideal self, even more so than writing about a close partner or friend. Other work has found that writing about a favorite TV character can decrease feelings of social rejection and loneliness (Derrick et al., 2009).

Further, earlier research I conducted found that individuals with emotional vulnerabilities reported increased parasocial interaction with favorite TV characters (the “Friends” cast was prominently featured; Greenwood, 2008). And, among a sample of heterosexual participants, increased imagined intimacy with favorite opposite-gender characters was significantly greater for those with heightened relational concerns (i.e., single individuals with attachment anxiety, Greenwood & Long, 2011).

Taken together, this work suggests that media figures may function to address certain psychological needs (worth noting is that the research in this area is complex and contradictory). Our social connections to favorite characters may not replace the value of an actual friend or romantic partner, but they may provide a temporary emotional balm that enables us to move through periods of isolation or insecurity.

Finally, beyond the individual benefits of connecting with favorite characters, affiliating with other fans may also have social and emotional value. Research on fan identity, for example, has found that socializing with other fans is predictive of greater relational well-being (Vinney et al., 2019). Coming together to mourn the loss of a favorite celebrity may also facilitate a sense of belonging and closure. Fans across the world have gotten together to commemorate their mutual love of Friends and Matthew Perry’s character, Chandler Bing, from New York City to Shanghai.

In an earlier piece about parasocial loss, I noted how natural it is to feel sad when a favorite media character/figure dies, how the strength of our connection to that character predicts the intensity of our sadness, and how such losses can sometimes have the positive benefit of motivating sensitivity and information-seeking about mental or physical health. None of these points are any less true when it comes to the specific loss of Matthew Perry—to whom so many people felt emotionally attached, and whose candid descriptions of his experiences with addiction may have been validating, motivating, and/or cautionary.

Even as so many of us struggle with the weight and trauma of global catastrophe from near and far, we can also savor both actual and imagined “friends” who make us laugh and feel less alone. Anything that puts us in touch with our common humanity and compassion is a step in the right direction.

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