I’m sometimes asked what is the most surprising thing I've learned about humor, and the answer is easy. It's that we don't need to be funny to benefit from a humorous life.
This shocks many people, largely because we assume having a rich sense of humor means telling funny jokes. But it's much deeper than that. To understand why, let's look at a finding by Alice Isen and colleagues at the University of Maryland. Their experiment was relatively straight-forward and involved participants watching five minutes of gag reel footage from classic television shows like Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel. This wasn't special and was only intended to put them in a good mood and hopefully make them laugh. Not a bad way to begin a study.
What happened next was key, as all participants were given a remote semantic associates task―a common measure of creative problem solving ability. This involved being given triads of words like mate, shoes, and total, and then asked to identify the one word that connects them all. For the three example words, only running is a common link (running mate, running shoes, running total), and there are literally hundreds of such remote associate problems, but participants were given only seven. They we told the materials had nothing to do with the video and that they were just pilot testing a separate study.
It turns out that the participants correctly identified, on average, five of the seven remote associates. Not bad, especially since the task is known for being exceptionally difficult.
However, the interesting comparison came when these results were contrasted with separate participants who didn't watch the comedy video. They answered, on average, two fewer problems, a difference of over 25%. Those who performed light exercise instead of watching the video did slightly better, but not nearly as well as those exposed to comedy.
It amazes me that simply watching a comedy, presumably seated in front of a television and with soda or beer in hand, can offer such strong benefits. It gives me hope, because it means we don't need to be professional comedians to benefit from humor. Watching is enough. Comedy is like mental exercise, and just as physical exercise strengthens the body, comedy pumps up the mind.
This finding also highlights the important difference between humor production, and comprehension. Telling funny jokes is a completely different art than getting a punchline. Most of us will never be a stand-up comedian, but we can all still be active participants. Just as we don't need to own an instrument to enjoy great music, or have any paints to enjoy fine art, you don't need to be an expert joke-teller to make humor a bigger part of your life. In fact, you might gain as much intellectually from seeing a comedy as you would from visiting a museum, or attending an opera. That's a good deal.
So, the next time you're at the movie theater and having trouble deciding what to see, keep these findings in mind. And, because my own sense of humor is sometimes cruel, here's another word triad to give your brain a little extra work out. Only one person in ten is able to solve it in half a minute, in case you want to time yourself. Good luck! ― over, plant, horse.
Isen, A., Daubman, K., and Nowicki, G. (1987). Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122-1131