I want to discuss why it is important to answer a question that has puzzled philosophers, scientists, and comedians since the dawn of Western thought: What makes things funny? To help answer this (tough) question, I recently started the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. HuRL is an interdisciplinary research lab comprised of students with skills in research, design, computer programming, and social media, all of which we use to create experiments that test theories of humor.
A definition of humor
Humor is a psychological state characterized by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh. It is not a surprising definition – I probably could define humor the same way the Supreme Court defines pornography: You know it when you see it…
Humorous? You be the “Judge.”
(Photo courtesy of AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com)
Humor is good
The benefits of humor are well documented. Humor has psychological benefits. It makes people happy (duh) and helps them cope with stress and adversity. Humor even seems to help people grieve. (Research shows that people who spontaneously experienced amusement and laughter when discussing a deceased spouse showed better emotional adjustment in the years following the spouse’s death.)
Humor has physical benefits. Laughter – especially a hearty laugh – is good for your circulation, lungs, and muscles (especially those around the belly area). Humor also helps people deal with pain and physical adversity. Hollywood even made a bad movie, Patch Adams, which shows the benefits of humor in clinical settings.
Humor clearly has social benefits too. Not surprisingly, funny people receive positive attention and admiration. The ability to create humor and appreciate humor also influences who wants to date, mate, and befriend you. Most studies find humor to be a highly desirable attribute, which explains why the acronym GSOH (good sense of humor) finds its way into personal and online dating posts. Finally, humor smooths potentially awkward social and cultural interactions. Think about how much easier an uncomfortable situation can be when you joke about it.
Luckily, this is not entirely true.
Humor is everywhere
Understanding humor is important because humor is pervasive: Nearly all people and even non-human primates, such as apes and chimpanzees, experience humor on a daily basis.
Different joke – same response.
(Source: News.sky.com http://bit.ly/c6fWe5)
People typically approach pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, the pursuit of humor, therefore, influences many of our daily decisions – the websites, books, and magazines we read, the television shows and movies we watch, and the people we decide to talk to (or not). Also, because humor is valued by consumers, businesses are constantly creating funny advertisements (e.g., Superbowl ads) and funny entertainment products (e.g., blockbuster comedic films) in order to get our attention and discretionary dollars.
Finally, understanding humor is important because it is informative when people can’t or don’t experience it (e.g., depression, extreme adversity, brain damage) or when people are offended or enraged by humor attempts (e.g., tasteless or racist jokes).