A Day Without Humor Is a Day Well-Stressed

By Janet M. Gibson

About 10 years ago, George Drake ’56 said tutorial topics should be fun, a comment that stuck and caused me to choose psychology of humor for the topic of my seventh tutorial in 2015. I knew very little about humor, as it rarely appears in textbooks for introductory psychology or my field, cognitive psychology. I quickly learned that research in the humor field was growing and producing abundant fruit — research on how we detect humor, how we appreciate its various forms, and how important humor is to our health, relationships, and quality of life. Chris Johnson ’89 talked me into writing an undergraduate textbook, published in 2019. The research shows humor is more than fun and games.

Humor is a complex, multidimensional process that can be parsed into cognitive, social, emotional, and motor components. Because multiple areas distributed across the brain are needed to process and integrate these components, impairments or changes to our sense of humor can be diagnostic of brain difficulties or damage. Laughing because we comprehend and appreciate humor helps to maintain a healthy brain by activating a complex neural network that detects and resolves double meanings of the literal and humorous; uses schemas and social norms to form expectations; interprets contexts or situations and surprising punchlines; empathizes and represents others’ perspectives; and generates mirth and amusement, resulting in smiles and laughter. Humor’s ambiguity strengthens our working memory and social skills which manage that thin, often-crossed, line between funny and offensive.

Laughter and humor are healthy coping mechanisms that ease our response to stress. We take ourselves or the stressful situation less seriously when we laugh. Lightening up also frees up cognitive resources to problem-solve. Thus, laughter and humor help to regulate our emotions, increasing happiness, decreasing anxiety, or distracting attention away from stress; and problem-solve, affording energy (and gaining advice of friends who laugh with us) to decide what to do about the stressor. Oxygen flowing with laughter is good for brain and brawn, releasing psychological and physical tension. Activation of the laughter network helps us physically to handle prolonged stress, reducing cortisol’s wear and tear on our organs and boosting our immune system for resilience. Laughter and humor strengthen social connections. Giggles and laughter seldom happen when alone. Infants’ laughter acts as an external sign of their pleasure, strengthening bonds with caregivers. Later, it acts as an external sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation and enjoying attitudes and expressions of others. Laughter reduces threats and rewards working together. When others see someone laugh at their own mistakes, everyone relaxes and maintains proactive, rather than defensive, behavior. Even humor that demeans others might cause a similar effect, because aggressive humor frequently functions as play and not as aggression.

Humor is play, a break from reality, but it is informed by our world beliefs. Cultures around the world value humor, but not everyone finds the same thing funny. Some cultures have a low tolerance for ambiguity and prefer predictable punchlines, but many Americans prefer unpredictable ones. Some cultures hold a suspicion of laughter. Some cultures find irony funny whereas others feel insulted (e.g., “If your wife is making you late, then perhaps you should divorce her”). Most cultures believe men are funnier than women; evolutionary psychologists explain that men produce and women appreciate humor to advertise their cognitive and social competency for passing on strong genes. Data show our genes contribute both to our personality and to our sense of humor.

Humor is a character strength, a virtue. Humor and laughter produce positive emotions that encourage flourishing and feelings of belonging. A sense of humor enhances well-being, life satisfaction, and meaning for our lives. It correlates with curiosity, love of learning, hope, and wisdom. It also correlates with creativity and fluent thinking, needed for flexible thinking and decision-making.

You can improve your sense of humor and increase your frequency of laughter to gain its many benefits:

  • Surround yourself (even virtually) with funny people and funny events; watch comedies, listen to funny podcasts, and read comic strips.
  • Look for funny things as you go about your day.
  • Try to produce humor; we tend to get funnier with more attempts.
  • Do laughter yoga, a mindful way to laugh on purpose. Perhaps start by faking the laugh (hee hee, ha ha) until it gets so ridiculous that you genuinely laugh. Listen to others laugh, and your motor cortex will activate your laughter network.
  • Combine thoughts of a stressor and humor, thereby diminishing the negative feelings of the stressor. For example, with COVID-19, many of us were dismayed that we stayed inside the house more than the trash (insert laughter here), or as we watched the American divide to be or not to be social distancing or getting the vaccine, we could joke that COVID-19 spread is caused by a) populations being dense and b) populations being dense.
  • Adopt a playful attitude, allowing silliness now and then to be OK, and respect the powerful role humor plays in our adult lives.

In addition to her studies on the psychology of humor, Professor Janet M. Gibson’s research as a cognitive psychologist focuses on executive functions and on implicit memory (the influence of past experience that facilitates or biases current performance in the absence of conscious recollection). She explores these areas in the context of aging and problem-solving. She has served as a Grinnell faculty member for more than 30 years.

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