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What Makes a Good Sense of Humor?

The capacity to express or perceive what's funny, humor, is both a source of entertainment and a means of coping with difficult or awkward situations and stressful events. Although it provokes laughter, humor can be serious business. From its most lighthearted forms to its more absurd ones, humor can play an instrumental role in forming social bonds, releasing tension, or attracting a mate. Most important, humor is largely subjective.

A universal theory is that good humor should be unexpected and incongruent; things that don’t belong together should appear funny when put together. However, not everything surprising can be deemed funny. Tripping over a friend’s foot is surprising but decidedly not funny. Another quirk about humor is that the very funny among us are more open to experience, more curious in general, and may even enjoy a higher than average IQ.

There is a dark side to humor, however. When it is hostile, antagonistic, degrading, or displays a sense of superiority, an attempt at humor can divide people rather than bring them closer together. Of course, the shortcomings and imperfections of others—and oneself—have long been fodder for comedians. When exactly a joke "goes too far" and ceases to be funny, and why, is one of many lingering questions about the psychology of humor.

What Makes Something Funny?

There are as many different functions and styles of humor as there are versions of the old joke, "How many ____ does it take to change a light bulb?" There are also as many variations on what comedians will say and do to provoke laughter as there are different types of people who tend to laugh at specific types of jokes.

Sarcasm, for example, is a type of humor that often is hostile in nature and ultimately carries underlying negativity. Comedians who use this strategy include Bill Murray and Sarah Silverman.

Scientists have proposed competing explanations for why some things are funnier than others. The act of violating expectations is central to more than one account of what makes a joke impactful. Culture, age, political orientation, and many other factors play a role in whether a joke falls flat.

Why It's Important to Have a Sense of Humor

Here are some facts about humor and how it can affect everyday living—from home like to office life.

  • Humor can be used to diffuse conflict. A well-timed quip in the middle of a heated argument can relieve tension.
  • Laughter may improve the immune system, blood pressure, and blood flow.
  • People, especially disengaged employees, laugh less during the work week when compared with the weekend.
  • A fun work environment can reduce employee turnover and burnout.
  • Humor is a desired trait in leaders.

Men, Women and Humor

Gender plays a role in what people consider funny. Research indicates that men appreciate dark, aggressive, and satirical humor more than women, on average. Men are also more inclined to like humor that is overtly sexual and shocking (think of Andrew Dice Clay or Sacha Baron Cohen).

Women, meanwhile, may have more appreciation for sentimental comedy and prefer friendly humor, comedians who are relatable, and the ability to tell a good story (Ellen Degeneres, Tina Fey).

Men have long been regarded as the most prolific producers of comedy. However, this may be changing with the growing success of funny women (such as Melissa McCarthy, Ali Wong, and many others).

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