Have you had a good laugh lately? Did anything funny happen to you this week? And, what types of jokes make you chuckle the most? Such questions are increasingly the focus of scientific research--for evidence is now piling up that our sense of humor directly affects our well-being.
Despite the popular stereotype of grim-faced mental health practitioners, psychologists have been interested in this topic for more than a century. A landmark achievement was Sigmund Freud’s 1905 classic book Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.In Freud’s influential formulation, people often use humor as an indirect way to express feelings that would otherwise be blocked by their unconscious mind. A good example is sarcasm, which Freud correctly saw as veiled hostility. In his view, jokes allow our suppressed emotions (such as resentment or jealousy) to surface and be released-—thereby ridding ourselves of inner tension. We probably all know people who employ sarcasm to belittle others, rather than to verbalize their grievances openly.
It’s well known that Freud himself had a strong sense of humor, although it was often sarcastic rather than kindly or gentle. Having written prolifically about the presence of phallic symbols--such as church steeples and obelisks -- seemingly ever present in everyday life, Freud was once confronted about his preference for cigar-smoking. As later reported by a colleague, Freud’s famous quip was: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Freud’s long-time associate was the Austrian physician Alfred Adler, the founder of what he called Individual Psychology. It’s a field gaining increasing adherents today especially in Asia, perhaps due to Adler’s emphasis on social bonding and friendship rather than hyper-individualism as central to harmonious living. Adler stressed the importance of humor for psychological well-being -- and warned that it’s never beneficial to take oneself too seriously. “I can’t deny that I tease my patients,” Adler once confided to a group of doctors at a trainings seminar, “but I do so in a friendly way and I always like to show through a joke what’s happening (in a clinical case). It’s very worthwhile that you have a great collection of jokes. Sometimes a joke can help the patient see how ridiculous is his neurosis.”
In Adler’s insightful view, our ego typically erects inner walls to resist personal change—especially if we feel that we’re being criticized. However, a joke may go right past our watchful ego -- and thereby catalyze new forms of personal growth. Adler taught that mental health professionals should always incorporate humor into counseling situations, partly because it helps to defuse the sense of crisis or impending doom that many people feel in struggling with emotional distress. His warm, down-to-earth manner in this regard was highly reassuring.
Adler’s famous protégés included Abraham Maslow, a co- founder of humanistic psychology and the “guru” of motivational theory in business today. He wrote extensively about humor among highly successful, creative people -- those whom he termed self-actualizing. Maslow found that such personsrichly enjoy humor -- but of particular kinds. That is, they share an appreciation for life’s absurdities and have an ability to banter easily, as well as to poke fun attheir own foibles. Self-actualizers also shun telling -- or even willingly listening to -- jokes that are insulting, malicious, or cruel: that is, laughing at someone else’s misfortune.
Today, positive psychology is giving considerable attention to humor. A growing body of scientific research shows that having a healthy ability to laugh is an important aspect of individual well-being. Among the leaders in this specialty is Dr. Rod Martin of Canada’s University of Western Ontario. For more than twenty-five years, Dr. Martin and his colleagues have studied humor styles(in their evocative phrase) and amassed substantial evidence that people differ in the role that humor plays in their daily lives. Martin’s work identifies four different types of humor:
As you might suspect, the first two types of humor have been linked to good mental health and social adjustment. In sharpcontrast, the latter two types of humor are associated with impaired emotional functioning -- such as chronic anger, feelings of unworthiness, social avoidance, and depression. There is also evidence that humor style has an impact on our romantic happiness. For instance, in an observational study of conflict resolution among dating couples, Dr. Lorne Campbell at the University of Western Ontario and hiscolleagues found that increased affiliative humor and decreased aggressive humor enhanced couples’ closeness when experiencing conflict with each other.
Can you change your habitual humor styleto one that’s more healthy and fulfilling? Though research is yet scanty on this question, the answer appears a definite yes. One method I recommend is to think of someone you know with a good ability to see humor in difficult situations. Then describe an incident in which this person showed this ability. Next, think about yourself: are you at all like this person you mentioned? If so, describe a stressfull incident in which you effectively found some humor: what was your joke or wit about?
How about cross-cultural stereotypes—-like that Germans are unfunny or the British have a dry sense of humor? It’s well known among film-making executives that comedies are far more difficult to market successfully across national boundaries than action-thrillers or romances, for humor depends so much on cultural context, involving traditional taboos as well as cherished values.
In any event, humor today is clearly no laughing matter.
The worldwide pharmaceutical industry is sure to fight it, but the day may come soon when your doctor will advise, “Have two belly-laughs before bedtime and call me in the morning.”