The average American adult laughs just 18 times a day. That’s down from the eight laughs an hour they enjoyed when they were five years old. This, according to emerging research in the behavioral sciences, is a big problem.
These days, comedy is everywhere — on television, in movies, and all over the Internet. Yet our lives lack levity. We are over-scheduled, over-tired, and over-worked. Who has time to crack jokes with friends anymore? Plus, being funny seems to be riskier than ever. One failed joke can light up the Twittersphere.
Modern science, however, suggests humor might be far more important and powerful than most of us realize — and that we could all stand to benefit from doubling down on comedy.
Over the centuries, most scholars focused on humor’s dark side. Plato and Aristotle believed comedy was all about exerting superiority over your peers and delighting in others’ follies. Freud thought humor was a psychic release valve for people to release their dirty and repressed thoughts. When Lord Chesterfield, the champion of eighteenth-century manners, noted in one of his famous letters that “there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter,” he was echoing the common opinion of philosophers and historians alike.
But increasingly, scientists are embracing and examining the brighter side of life, with a special emphasis on what makes people happy. No wonder then, that humor is now seen as a virtue in the increasingly popular positive psychology movement, alongside concepts like creativity, curiosity, and love.
But that’s just the beginning. Humor, for example, has been shown to significantly enhance relationships, romantic and otherwise. If two people can make each other laugh, after all, they likely share many of the same values, beliefs, and interests — the bedrock of healthy relationships. No wonder, then that a survey of 700 men and women found that people considered humor one of the most important characteristics when choosing a partner. And studies of happy marriages, especially those lasting more than 50 years, find spouses often credit their marital bliss to laughing together.
Humor can also smooth interactions and build bonds. While schools are instituting anti-bullying programs, research finds that many forms of gentle teasing are actually highly beneficial. Such verbal and physical play is integral for setting social boundaries, easing conflicts, and negotiating the uncertainties of life. Humor even seems to help serious business negotiations. In one study, people trying to bargain down the price of a landscape painting were more likely to come to an agreement if the person on the other side of the negotiating table cracked, “I’ll thrown in my pet frog.”
There are less obvious benefits to enjoying a joke. Comedy challenges assumptions and humor broadens perspectives, thus enhancing creativity. In one experiment, researchers had people try to solve a classic puzzle: attach a candle to a blank wall using only the candle, a box of tacks, and some matches. Folks who watched slapstick comedy were more successful at solving the task — tack the box to the wall and then use a match to melt the candle onto the box — than those who had watched a math video or exercised.
Being funny can also be a useful way to point out what is wrong with the world. In fact, Srđa Popović, the former leader of the Serbian youth movement Otpor!, claims “laughtivism” — injecting humor into its protest movements — was one of the main reasons they were able to overthrow President Slobodan Milošević in 2000. (On Milošević’s birthday, for example, Otpor! baked a giant cake, only to carve it up just like he’d disastrously carved up Yugoslavia.) According to Popović, jokes like this made the protesters seem cool and courageous and made Milošević look stupid. As the butt of the joke, he faced a lose-lose situation: He could either allow activists to make fun of him — or risk looking like he couldn’t take a joke.
While most of us aren’t focused on overthrowing despots, that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from a more personal version of “laughtivism” — using humor to navigate the frustrations and slights we face in our daily lives. Research shows that while people don’t like complainers, they do like humorous complainers — those who manage to vent wittily about bad weather or a terrible customer service experience.
And finally, although science hasn’t proven that laughter is the best medicine, it has shown that humor is a potentially powerful mechanism to deal with physical and psychological pain. Historical records indicate that people facing great suffering, from Holocaust victims to prisoners of war, found humor to be an important way to cope — findings bolstered by laboratory and clinical research. In one especially touching experiment, researchers interviewed a group of widowers six months after the death of their spouses. Those able to smile and laugh about their marriage during this time of lingering sadness had fewer problems with grief and depression in the years that followed.
The science is clear: We’d all benefit from living a more humorous life. But how, exactly, do we do that? It might help to understand what makes things funny in the first place. While deconstructing humor has stumped scholars for millennia, we’re partial to the benign violation theory, a new comedic axiom McGraw developed with his collaborator Caleb Warren and has been testing at the University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab (HuRL). The theory proposes that people are amused by situations that seem wrong or threatening in some way (i.e., a violation), but are actually okay or safe (i.e., benign). For example, tickling is a harmless physical attack and therefore funny — as long as it’s at the hands of someone you know and trust. And puns misuse language in a way that makes sense — at least to the people who care about language and can understand the joke.
The idea that humor arises from potentially negative experiences, from violations, points to where we should all be looking for more comedic fodder. Mark Twain had it right when he quipped, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” Paradise is no place for laughs — but a boring meeting, a traffic jam, or a family holiday? Talk about good set-ups.
Even better, transforming these violations into benign violations — finding a way to laugh them — robs these stresses and strains of their bite.
So, if you want to inject more humor into your life, you could go to more comedy clubs or increase your intake of silly movies. That would surely increase your laughs per hour — but we prefer a different approach, one that isn’t dependent on what comedian’s in town or the quality of the latest Will Ferrell flick: Teach yourself to think like a comedian. Take a step back from the faults and foibles of daily life, and find a way to laugh at them. Take what’s wrong, in other words, and find a way to make it okay.
Dr. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Joel Warner, an award-winning journalist, are co-authors of the new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which will be published today by Simon & Schuster.