Humor is observed in all cultures and at all ages. But only in recent decades has experimental psychology respected it as an essential, fundamental human behavior.
Historically, psychologistsframed humor negatively, suggesting it demonstrated superiority, vulgarity, Freudian id conflict, or a defense mechanism to hide one’s true feelings. In this view, an individual used humor to demean or disparage others, or to inflate one’s own self-worth. As such, it was treated as an undesirable behavior to be avoided. And psychologists tended to ignore it as worthy of study.
But research on humor has recently come to light, with humor now viewed as a character strength. Positive psychology, a field that examines what people do well, notes that humor can be used to make others feel good, to gain intimacy, or to help buffer stress. Along with gratitude, hope, and spirituality, a sense of humor belongs to the set of strengths positive psychologists call transcendence; together they help us forge connections to the world and provide meaning to life. Appreciation of humor correlates with other strengths, too, such as wisdom and love of learning. And humor activities or exercises result in increased feelings of emotional well-being and optimism.
For all these reasons, humor is now welcomed into mainstream experimental psychology as a desirable behavior or skill researchers want to understand. How do we comprehend, appreciate, and produce humor?
What it takes to get a joke
Understanding and creating humor require a sequence of mental operations. Cognitive psychologists favor a three-stage theory of humor. To be in on the joke, you need to be able to:
- Mentally represent the set up of the joke.
- Detect an incongruity in its multiple interpretations.
- Resolve the incongruity by inhibiting the literal, non-funny interpretations, and appreciating the meaning of the funny one.
An individual’s knowledge is organized in mental memory structures called schemas. When we see or think of something, it activates the relevant schema—that is, our body of knowledge on that particular topic immediately comes to mind.
For example, when we see cows in a Far Side cartoon, we activate our bovine schema (stage one). But when we notice the cows are inside the car while human beings are in the pasture grazing, there are now two mental representations in our conscious mind: what our preexisting schema mentally represented about cows, and what we imagined from the cartoon (stage two). By inhibiting the real-world representation (stage three), we find the idea of cows driving through a countryside of grazing people funny. “I know about cows” becomes “Wait, cows should be the ones in the field, not people,” becomes an appreciation of the humor in an implausible situation.
Funny is the subjective experience that comes from the resolution of at least two incongruous schemas. In verbal jokes, the second schema is often activated at the end, in a punchline.
That’s not funny
There are at least two reasons that we sometimes don’t get the joke. First, the punchline must create a different mental representation that conflicts with the one set up by the joke; timing and laugh tracks help signal the listener that a different representation of the punchline is possible. Second, you must be able to inhibit the initial mental representation.
When jokes perpetuate a stereotype that we find offensive (as in ethnic, racist, or sexist jokes), we may refuse to inhibit the offensive representation. Violence in cartoons is another example; in Roadrunner cartoons, when an anvil hits the coyote, animal lovers may be unable to see the humor.
This incongruity model can explain why older adults do not comprehend jokes as frequently as younger adults. Due to declines tied to the aging process, older adults may not have the cognitive resources needed to create multiple representations, to simultaneously hold them in their minds in order to detect the incongruity, or to inhibit the first one that was activated. Getting the joke relies on working memory capacity and control functions. However, when older adults succeed in their efforts to do these things, they typically show greater appreciation of the joke than younger adults do, and report greater life satisfaction than those who don’t see the humor.
There may be other aspects to humor, though, where older adults hold the advantage. Wisdom is a form of reasoning that increases with age and is correlated with subjective well-being. Humor is linked with wisdom—a wise person knows how to use humor or when to laugh at oneself.
Additionally, intuition is a form of decision-making that may develop with the expertise and experience that come with aging. Like humor, intuition is enjoying a bit of a renaissance within psychology research now that it’s been reframed as a major form of reasoning. Intuition aids humor in schema formation and incongruity resolution, and we perceive and appreciate humor more through speedy first impressions rather than logical analysis.
Traveling through time
It’s a uniquely human ability to parse time, to reflect on our past, present, and future, and to imagine details in these mental representations. As with humor, time perspective is fundamental to human experience. Our ability to enjoy humor is enmeshed with this mental capacity for time travel and subjective well-being.
People vary greatly in the ability to detail their mental representations of the past, present, and future. For example, some people may have what psychologists call a negative past perspective—frequently thinking about bygone mistakes that don’t have anything to do with the present environment, even reliving them in vivid detail despite the present or future being positive.
Time perspective is related to feelings of well-being. People report a greater sense of well-being depending on the quality of the details of their past or present recollections. When study participants focused on “how” details—which tend to elicit vivid details—they were more satisfied with life than when they focused on “why,” which tend to elicit abstract ideas. For example, when remembering a failed relationship, those focusing on events that led to the breakup were more satisfied than those dwelling on abstract causal explanations concerning love and intimacy.
One study found that people who use humor in positive ways held positive past time perspectives, and those using self-defeating humor held negative past time perspectives. This kind of study contributes to our understanding of how we think about and interpret social interactions. Such research also suggests that attempts to use humor in a positive way may improve the emotional tone of details in our thoughts and thereby our moods. Clinical psychologists are using humor as a treatment to increase subjective well-being.
In ongoing recent work, my students and I analyzed college students’ scores on a few common scales that psychologists use to assess humor, the need for humor—a measure of how an individual produces or seeks humor in their daily lives—, and time perspective. Our preliminary results suggest those high in humor character traits tend to concentrate on the positive aspects of their past, present, and future. Those who seek humor in their lives appear in our study sample also to focus on the pleasant aspects of their current lives.
Though our investigation is still in the early phase, our data support a connection between the cognitive processes needed to mentally time-travel and to appreciate humor. Further research on time perspectives may help explain individual differences in detecting and resolving incongruities that result in funny feelings.
Learning to respect laughter
Experimental psychologists are rewriting the book on humor as we learn its value in our daily lives and its relationship to other important mental processes and character strengths. As the joke goes, how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it has to want to change.
Studying humor allows us to investigate theoretical processes involved in memory, reasoning, time perspective, wisdom, intuition, and subjective well-being. And it’s a behavior of interest in and of itself as we work to describe, explain, control, and predict humor across age, genders, and cultures.
Whereas we may not agree on what’s funny and what isn’t, there’s more consensus than ever among experimental psychologists that humor is serious and relevant to the science of behavior. And that’s no laughing matter.
This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.
Humor: The Spice of Life (Part 1)
By Leslie Rose Seminars
What would we do without humor? How would we enjoy talks with others if we did not use humor to invite a smile or a laugh? And how would we manage the times when we feel sad and alone?
With humor we lighten up each day, and we find common ground with others. We build healthy relationships with others by knowing what to say and to do that helps, and what hinders, a conversation. Humor often takes us to the edge of uncertainty when we exaggerate, or tease others to make our point. When humor is successful, we build trust and cooperation. We discover that we are not alone, we learn to accept our mistakes, and we look for the good in others and in our selves. Most important, we create common ground.
However, when we lose our sense of humor, we often get critical or defensive, and we blame others or ourselves for what was said, and how it was said.
Humor is an essential skill needed to communicate well with others. A few well chosen words get the attention of others and make a serious point without their getting defensive. Whether we prefer to be the centre of attention or shy and quiet, humor can be adjusted to suit our personality.
The challenge for everyone is to become more aware of how to add humor, and when to avoid it. Too much humor, like too much spice often annoys others. Humor that is perceived as insensitive often leads others to shut down, or become argumentative. But when we each maintain our sense of humor, we look for the good in others and in our selves. To ensure that our humor is welcomed by others, we need to combine our humor with speaking clearly and listening effectively.
Have you ever noticed that successful individuals often use self-depreciating humor to humble themselves, without putting themselves down? These individuals understand that every person has strengths and weaknesses and that self-depreciating humor invites others to feel more confident and equal.
Having humor helps us keep our perspective, stay responsive to others, and resolve differences. Do you already have some things that you say to diffuse tension? Words like “At times like this, my uncle used to say…” can help the conversation to become less confrontational.
And what do you say when you are tempted to disagree with someone? If you can’t think of a humorous comment that will be helpful, you can try looking for clarification by mirroring back their words and clarifying their point. Assume that there is always something that you can find to appreciate when you are looking for common ground. Focus on preventing an argument. Remember, humor is often not the best choice to handle conflict,
Opportunities to add a touch of humor happen all of the time. In December when I visited my friend Tim in the hospital, I came wearing antlers from the dollar store. And when I was accepted into the graduate program at University of Waterloo, I wrote my acceptance letter as a poem. In each situation my small change from the everyday stirred others to smile, and expect positive conversations in the future.
Much of our humor comes from reconnecting to our playful inner child. For many of us, it only takes a playful voice tone, wearing a funny hat, or holding a stuffed toy to get started. Take a risk. Add a bit more humor, and do it in the way that is right for you.
Humor: The Spice of Life (Part 2)
When we are happy, we are light-hearted. We are open to others and ready to laugh and play. We laugh when we see things presented in unexpected ways. TV sitcoms and comics give us daily reminders of how to twist what we expect to see or hear to make it funny.
When life seems good, the world seems safe. And at these times we find the confidence and the strength to deal with the challenges of everyday living.
Knowing how to add humor to our conversations and to our activities keeps us happy and confident and connected with others. Conflicts and differences of opinions are prevented or managed. Humorous comments help us see a situation realistically.
Organizing fun activities throughout the year keeps us feeling happy and strong. Having a fundraising event, a surprise birthday, a Halloween costume party or a scavenger hunt helps. The key to a successful event is choosing activities that invite individuals to feel comfortable enough to be spontaneous when they interact with others. They need to be noticed and appreciated for their contribution.
Here are some fun things to say to manage a stressful situation.
__1) You are terrific.
__2) Is it my turn to win?
__3) Is it too late to apologize?
__4) You’re younger, you know best.
__5) My mother wants me to stop now.
Here are some fun things to do:
__1) Dance naked in front of your pets.
__2) Get a tattoo.
__3) Eat dessert first.
__4) Make a home made birthday card.
__5) Pop popcorn with the lid off.
__6) Tell stories about great personal successes or embarrassments
Humor is the spice of life. It brings happiness. It decreases pain. It enhances speaking well and listening well.
Humor is the shortest distance between two people.
Humor: The Spice of Life (Part 3)
Have you ever watched a soap opera on TV? Mainly the characters do selfish and hurtful things, and they suffer. Thousands of people watch these soap operas each day. For some people feeling helpless can seem more appealing than feeling happy
There is a clear alternative. Humor can be added each day to feel happiness, to find common ground with others and find solutions to problems.
Some will smile when they read, “We are all bozos on the bus”.With so many everyday competing demands, it is hard not to feel inadequate some times. We can get stuck in ongoing emotional struggles, even with the ones we love.
Usually when we get very upset we lose our sense of humor. Frequently we are upset about little things, like dirty socks on the floor, the seat left up, and the toilet paper that is rolling over instead of under. Underneath, what is upsetting is feeling helpless and thinking that others don’t care about our needs.
Telling others what we don’t like about them does not help them to change. Criticizing in a critical voice tone often creates resentment, and escalates the problem. One critical moment can undo the goodwill established with many good talks. Improving communication skills will help. Humor makes it easier to communicate well. Little fun moments are like building a relationship one brick at a time.
Here is what businesses have done to improve communication and morale.
- Wheeling around a refreshment cart at 3 p.m. on Fridays.
- Replacing dress down Fridays with dress up Fridays.
- Celebrating birthdays each month with a cake and a get together at lunch.
- Giving each person the name of another employee and secretly leaving poems, small gifts or words of appreciation.
Here is what fun-loving people do away from work:
- Put up streamers even when there is no special occasion.
- Make a family photo collage for the wall.
- Make a hanging mobile and hang in the house.
- Wear funny hats in public.
- Make music out of utensils from the kitchen.
Humorous conversations naturally come when the unexpected replaces your daily routines. Giving each person a chance to shine builds trust and increases creativity. What follows is a warm feeling inside, some smiles or big laughs and the good memories and good feelings last for a long-time.
Leslie Rose has been leading humor seminars for over 25 years. He presents at conferences and in-house on Humor in the Workplace, Managing Stress, Communicating Effectively and Customer Service.
For a fun moment, please visit his web site: www.leslieroseseminars.com, or call 416 423 0400