Robin Williams’ Humor Masked His Disease

When someone as sparklingly witty as Robin Williams commits suicide — as the actor, once named the funniest person alive by Entertainment Weekly, apparently did last night — our first reaction is disbelief at the incongruity. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Psychologists believe that some styles of humor can mask a greater susceptibility to depression. In fact, a certain sense of humor may be a symptom of a widespread, often untreated disease that disables and kills.

Researchers have identified four distinct humor styles: affiliative (friendly banter to strengthen social bonds), self-enhancing (laughing at life’s problems to overcome them), aggressive (laughing at others’ weaknesses) and self-defeating (to a layman, self-deprecating). In the last 10 years, several studies associated the last of these with depression. According to a paper by Raymond Tucker and a team of collaborators from Oklahoma State University, published last year,

“The self-defeating humor style appears to be particularly pernicious, as it relates to increased susceptibility for depression, depressive symptoms, feelings of anxiety, and neuroticism. Research also demonstrates that this humor style moderates the relationship between interpersonal predictors of suicide and suicidal thinking. Increased levels of shyness and loneliness, and decreased self-esteem, and social intimacy have also been related to increased self-defeating humor. Although this humor style may be motivated by a desire to facilitate social bonds, it may actually alienate oneself from others, resulting in feelings of loneliness and depression.”

As a comedian, Williams was versatile: His humor ranged from the biting (“Welcome to Washington D.C., where the buck stops here! And then it’s handed out to AIG and many other people”) to the poetic (“You’re only given a little spark of madness, and if you lose that, you’re nothing”). Yet there was a persistent streak of self-deprecation running through his interviews and comedy shows. Williams’ addictions were the most frequent subject of these particular jokes.