By Louise Dobson, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on March 25, 2013
In today's personality stakes, nothing is more highly valued than a sense of humor. We seek it out in others and are proud to claim it in ourselves, perhaps even more than good looks or intelligence. If someone has a great sense of humor, we reason, it means that they are happy, socially confident and have a healthy perspective on life.
This attitude would have surprised the ancient Greeks, who believed humor to be essentially aggressive. And in fact, our admiration for the comedically gifted is relatively new, and not very well-founded, says Rod Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who studies the way people use humor. Being funny isn't necessarily an indicator of good social skills and well-being, his research has shown—it may just as likely be a sign of personality flaws.
He has found that humor is a double-edged sword. It can forge better relationships and help you cope with life, or it can be corrosive, eating away at self-esteem and antagonizing others. "It's a form of communication, like speech, and we all use it differently," says Martin. We use bonding humor to enhance our social connections—but we also may wield it as a way of excluding or rejecting an outsider. Likewise, put-down humor can at times be an adaptive, healthy response: Employees suffering under a vindictive boss will often make the office more bearable by secretly ridiculing their tyrant.
Though humor is essentially social, how you use it says a lot about your sense of self. Those who use self-defeating humor, making fun of themselves for the enjoyment of others, tend to maintain that hostility toward themselves even when alone. Similarly, those who are able to view the world with amused tolerance are often equally forgiving of their own shortcomings.
This aggressive type of humor is used to criticize and manipulate others through teasing, sarcasm and ridicule. When it's aimed against politicians by the likes of Ann Coulter, it's hilarious and mostly harmless. But in the real world, it has a sharper impact. Put-down humor, such as telling friends an embarrassing story about another friend, is a socially acceptable way to deploy aggression and make others look bad so you look good.
When challenged on their teasing, the put-down joker often turns to the "just kidding" defense, allowing the aggressor to avoid responsibility even as the barb bites. Martin has found no evidence that those who rely on this type of humor are any less well-adjusted. But it does take a toll on personal relationships.
People who use bonding humor are fun to have around; they say amusing things, tell jokes, engage in witty banter and generally lighten the mood. These are the people who give humor a good name. They're perceived as warm, down-to-earth and kind, good at reducing the tension in uncomfortable situations and able to laugh at their own faults.
Talk show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres embraces her audience by sharing good-natured, relatable humor. Her basic message: We're alike, we find the same things funny and we're all in this together.
Nonetheless, bonding humor can have a dark side. After all, a feeling of inclusion can be made sweeter by knowing that someone else is on the outs. J.F.K. and his brothers would often invite a hated acquaintance to vacation with them; they'd be polite to his face, but behind his back, the brothers would unite in deriding the hapless guest.
In this style of humor, you are the butt of the joke for the amusement of others. Often deployed by people eager to ingratiate themselves, it's the familiar clown or "fat guy" playfulness that we loved in John Belushi and Chris Farley—both of whom suffered for their success. A small dose of it is charming, but a little goes a long way: Routinely offering yourself up to be humiliated erodes your self-respect, fostering depression and anxiety. It also can backfire by making other people feel uncomfortable, finds Nicholas Kuiper of the University of Western Ontario. He proposes that it may remind others of their own tendency toward self-criticism.
Farley, who died at age 33 from an overdose, had a streak of self-loathing. "Chris chose the immediate pleasure he got in pleasing others over the long-term cost to himself," his brother wrote after his death. The bottom line: Excelling at this style of humor may lead to party invitations but can ultimately exact a high price.
When we admire someone who "doesn't take himself too seriously," this is the temperament we're talking about. More than just a way of relating to other people, it's a prism that colors the world in rosier shades. Someone with this outlook deploys humor to cope with challenges, taking a step back and laughing at the absurdities of everyday life. The Onion is a repository of this benign good humor. The columnist Dave Barry has perfected it with quips like this: "Fishing is boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting."
Studies that link a sense of humor to good health are probably measuring this phenomenon; when you have a wry perspective, it's hard to remain anxious or hostile for long. Martin calls it "self-enhancing humor," because you don't need other people to entertain you—if something peculiar or annoying happens, you're perfectly capable of laughing at it on your own.