Humor, the capacity to express or perceive what's funny, 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.
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?" So why do we crack up at some jokes while others fall flat? Scientists have proposed competing explanations for why some things are funnier than others, but it seems clear that humor often involves the violation of expectations. Culture, age, political orientation, and many other factors likely also play a role in what people find funny.
Some who have sought to explain humor point to the fact that many jokes or funny events contradict one’s sense of how things are supposed to be. The theory of benign violations proposes that something is funny when it seems both wrong or threatening and essentially harmless—as when a comedian says something shocking but clearly unserious. (What counts as benign depends on the perceiver of the joke.) Other theories of what makes things funny focus on the role of tension-relief, suddenly “getting” how incongruous details fit together, and other factors.
In addition to being skilled in toying with people’s expectations, people who are funnier than most may exhibit qualities such as a willingness to take risks when making jokes and a sensitivity to how their attempts at humor are perceived. More gifted comedians might also be more intelligent, on average.
Certain personality traits seem to correspond with the style of humor people tend to use. Research suggests those who are drawn to humor as a way to affiliate with people or to support their own well-being are likely to rate higher on the traits of extraversion, agreeableness, and openness to experience. More agreeable and conscientious people also seem less likely to use humor in a disparaging or offensive way.
Laughing during a funeral or at any other typically unfunny time isn’t necessarily a sign of disregard for others. Inappropriate laughter may be a response to tension or other uncomfortable feelings stirred by awkward or sad situations, a hard-to-control release valve for the unpleasantness.
Gallows humor, or black humor, involves subjects (such as death) that are threatening or highly negative in some other way. This kind of humor can feel good and provide relief in the face of dark and disturbing circumstances, including for those who are regularly immersed in them, such as soldiers and hospital staff.
People with certain mental health conditions may be more or less likely to use and appreciate certain kinds of humor: There may be a relationship between humor and depression, for example, with depressed people being more likely to use self-deprecating humor and less likely to use positive styles of humor.
Not everyone can be a great comedian, but many of us are the jokester of the family, the class clown, or the funniest friend in the group. Given the appeal of a quick wit and a robust sense of humor, it’s natural to wonder whether you are among the funny ones—and whether there are ways to become funnier.
Some tips for becoming a funnier person include practicing joke-telling, taking comedic risks (knowing that some jokes will fail to get a laugh), and, of course watching, listening to, and reading the work of comedians.
Humor ability is among the traits women have indicated they most desire in a romantic partner, and they appear to prioritize it more, on average, than men do. Funniness may be attractive in part because it advertises a potential mate’s intelligence.
You could ask your most honest friend—but few people want to tell someone their jokes are half-baked. One way to get a better idea might be to pay attention to how people laugh (if they laugh) in response to jokes: Does the laughter seem involuntary or forced? There’s some evidence people can tell the difference between the kinds of laughter.
Laughter is pleasurable in itself, but humor serves other important functions, too. Being able to laugh may cushion the emotional blow of a trying experience and lighten up a tense atmosphere. As a shared experience, humor can help bring friends, family, and romantic partners close together.
Humor can make stressful situations better. In addition to the positive feelings that joking and laughing stirs, some have proposed increased feelings of social support and an improved ability to rethink distressing situations as potential reasons for a stress-buffering effect.
Humor can have a variety of social benefits, from defusing tense situations to strengthening social bonds between new or long-time friends (it’s sometimes called a “social lubricant”). A sense of humor may even serve as a kind of “social radar,” helping one detect and connect with like-minded people.
In light of the positive impact humor can have on well-being, many have claimed that it can improve health as well. While the links between humor and different aspects of physical health—such as immune function or heart health—have been explored, the evidence is largely inconclusive.
It depends on the style of humor: When it is hostile, antagonistic, or degrading, 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, and when exactly a joke "goes too far" and ceases to be funny can be subject to debate.