Seemingly since the first caveman made a crack about his hairy back, telling jokes at your own expense has been considered anything but funny—for your mental health, at least. Some evidence: Only the sheer number of studies, life coaches and doctors that claim that self-deprecation is something we instinctively do to lower other people’s expectations and reduce the chance that we will fail in their eyes — a thoroughly negative, pessimistic strategy. Furthermore, as clinical psychologist, Ros Taylor, explained to ELLE last year, “It can make others take the impression we have of ourselves as fact.”
Too many jokes about what a loser you are, in other words, will leave you with the distinct scent of failure.
But it may not be all bad: A new study suggests that being able to laugh at oneself is actually pretty healthy. Researchers at the Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Center in Spain have concluded that self-deprecating jokes might, in fact, make you a happier person. “In particular, we have observed that a greater tendency to employ self-defeating humour is indicative of high scores in psychological well-being dimensions such as happiness, and to a lesser extent, sociability,” wrote researcher Jorge Torres Marín in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Billy Strean, a professor at the University of Alberta who’s studied the use of humour in medicine, agrees, stating that self-deprecating humour can also sometimes reveal a level of humility and a degree of self-confidence. “It shows a willingness to show embarrassment, and it can help to build trust with others,” he says.
A study from Ursula Beermann of the University of California, Berkeley, and Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich, similarly revealed that being able to laugh at yourself is linked with higher levels of optimism and better moods. “Those who claimed to be able to laugh at themselves, and whose peers agreed with this verdict, showed more frequent and intense smiling and laughter in response to the distorted self-images, and fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion,” wrote Beerman.
Being able to laugh at yourself, says Strean, is even a sign of mental toughness. “It’s one thing to find humor in particular situations, it’s another to be reflective and self-aware enough to laugh at oneself,” he says. “It suggests psychological health and greater happiness.”
Indeed, an inability to laugh at oneself is often seen as a sign that something is seriously wrong. According to Askmen, not being able to laugh at yourself is a top 10 dating red flag. “Can you really expect a person who takes themselves too seriously to be any fun to be around?” asked the article’s author.
As positive as the new study makes self-deprecation, however, it still presents some downsides: Namely, that it may be indicative of suppressed anger. “[The] results suggest that humour, even when presented as benign or well-intentioned, can also represent a strategy for masking negative intentions,” wrote co-author Ginés Navarro-Carrillo.
Basically, too much self-deprecation might relate to a reduction in self-esteem — just like you always heard. “Sometimes people use self-deprecating humour in ways that lack self-compassion and may be ways of not accepting one’s own magnificence,” says Strean.
You should certainly have self-deprecation in your arsenal, but it should never be your whole schtick.