What do Jimmy Fallon, Melissa McCarthy and some of your favorite friends and family members all have in common?
A. Incredible wealth
B. Terribly naughty language
C. Dashing good looks
D. The ability to make you laugh hysterically
E. All of the above
F. Nothing. This is a trick question. I need a nap.
Hopefully you answered E, but most of us probably answered D. Or a combination of D and a few others. If you answered F, go take a nap and come back when you’re less cranky.
Why is laughter so important to us? We watch cat videos like we’re getting paid to do it and we load the theaters when there’s a new Tina Fae movie coming out. Even young children begin cracking knock-knock jokes in order to make others laugh. We’re so committed to humor we even have emojis and multiple versions of Laugh Out Loud to communicate to others our level of amusement; my personal favorite being the classic LMFAO.
There have been studies done that show the areas of the brain that are impacted by humor. The parts of the brain such as the VMF (Ventromedial Frontal Lobe) translate information to tell us what is funny and the Nucleus Accumbens near the base of the brain is involved in humor as it is linked to pleasure. The lower frontal lobes of the brain that are used for social and emotional connections, planning and judgment are also involved in the response to humor.
It is interesting, though, to consider the four types of humor and the implications of those styles on quality of life. In humor style studies related to the impact of social anxiety and depression symptoms, there has been a clear link between the “positive” types of humor (affiliative and self-enhancing) and decreased loneliness, shyness and self esteem issues. The two negative types of humor (aggressive and self-defeating) are correlated with increased social anxiety, depression and reinforcement of social rejection.
So, the use of self defeating or aggressive humor has a negative impact on social relationships as well as increased odds of being depressed, anxious or neurotic. This is all in connection with an individual’s personal mental health and personal connections. Clearly we can think of at least 2500 stand up comedians who make a good living with a mixture of these styles of humor. Whatever the reason or category, humor is valuable. It carries a certain level of currency within our social construct. Of course the fifth, least talked-about style of humor is self-defecating humor. It’s not commonly used outside of the crib circuit but occasionally shows up in a college dorm room on a bad night
Warren and McGraw of HuRL (Humor Research Lab), postulate the Benign Violation Theory. This theory is a spot-on notion that in order for humor to exist, there has to be a balance between a violation of social norms and benign intent. Something can be a violation or a benign comment and not be funny in the least. Both have to exist for the humor to resonate. I like the Venn diagram they use in this link. The social science aspect of this work has interesting implications. It helps us look at how our culture is shaped by what is socially acceptable, what crosses the line and is harmful, and what is somewhere in the middle and allows us to connect with the human condition.
Physically, laughing is a worthwhile past time. The benefits of laughter on the body have been compared to a mild workout. Hearty laughter for 10-15 minutes is said to burn 50 calories. (I knew I was getting skinnier watching Jim Gaffigan’s standup; I’m practically doing sit ups. And with buttered popcorn). Laughter improves circulation, lung health and even tightens stomach muscles.
But beyond the six pack laughter abs and social prowess, a sense of humor is frequently considered an important aspect of intimate relationships. Why is it so important for us to find a mate with whom we can laugh? Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas has studied this phenomenon. The bottom line is, regardless of your ability make a potential partner laugh with your hilarity, a shared sense of humor is the most important part of the equation. It seems that couples who laugh about the same types of things have stronger bonds and are more likely to stay together. The ability to laugh about the absurdities in life (or at least about the same kinds of absurdities) creates a sense of camaraderie that is important as a couple faces the suckier parts of life.
Whether you prefer slapstick, dark humor or satire, get your laugh on!