Is Your Sense Of Humor Healthy Or Unhealthy?

Psychologist Chloe Lau explains what it means to have a good sense of humor.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 23, 2022

A new study published in Personality And Individual Differences takes a deep dive into the inner workings of a 'good sense of humor.' The research suggests that while a sense of humor is a socially desirable and appreciated trait, it can also turn into an unhealthy coping mechanism that may hurt the ones around you.

I recently spoke to psychologist Chloe Lau from Western University, Canada to understand the different aspects of a sense of humor. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What traits does a person need to possess in order to be considered to have a 'good' sense of humor?

This is a difficult question to answer in psychology because humor is what psychologists call a "socially desirable" trait. This means that no one wants to think they don't have a "good" sense of humor.

There is a great quote by Frank Moore Colby that says, "Men will confess to treason, murder, false teeth, or a wig. How many of them will own up to a lack of humor?"

Studying humor becomes difficult in this way because no one would want to admit they don't have a sense of humor when you ask them directly (or they might not know). Therefore, it's really important as researchers we find different ways to measure a humorous personality.

Typically, we would measure humor using self-report, where participants fill out specific self-report questionnaires that are designed to measure the psychological construct.

However, we would not ask participants directly, "Do you have a sense of humor?" but we might ask how your humor functions in different situations or the types of traits you have or how you act in specific situations that are associated with a humorous personality.

To answer your question about what it means to have a "good" sense of humor, we first have to recognize that in any humorous interaction, there is typically a recipient who perceives, interprets, and enjoys humor while there's also an actor who creates and performs humor.

For example, if you tell me a joke and I laugh at the joke, we are both participating in the humorous experience. As the performer or actor of humor, we can say that you are funny because your joke made us laugh and you were able to produce humorous content in conversation. As the recipient, we can say I can "take a joke," let loose, and have fun.

In this example, we can fairly say that both parties have a good sense of humor, depending on how we look at it. In psychology, a humorous personality can be looked at in two ways similar to what we just described.

The first way is to look at the sense of humor as a style, this means it's a person's typical behavior. This might include their tendency to engage in amusement and laughter. These people joke around a lot and like to engage in humor, it makes them fun but not necessarily funny.

The second way to look at humor is as a skill or competence to create humorous comments that can be measured by how funny they are.

We can look at professional comedians as the masters of humor skill or competence.

Researchers have done lab studies where they have participants fill in punch lines for New Yorker cartoons to measure humor as an ability.

Not surprisingly, professional comedians do a lot better in these tasks than those of us who are non-comedians. Simply put, a person who jokes around a lot might not be the funniest person in the room and the funniest person in the room might not be the person who jokes around the most.

In short, you can have a "good sense of humor" by being a good sport and participating in humor or you can have a "good sense of humor" by being funny. The former we can call a personality (i.e., a tendency of how one behaves) while the latter is an ability.

My research is on the personality of humor. The model that I studied is called the temperamental basis of the sense of humor, which was developed by Professor Dr. Willibald Ruch from the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Professor Dr. Ruch suggested that a specific personality profile makes up a humorous person.

It takes a combination of three traits to make up a humorous personality (i.e., someone who is fun, likes to joke around):

This makes sense intuitively.

A cheerful person (and who is not in a bad mood) is more likely to laugh and joke around, they're also going to smile and laugh more often than their less cheerful counterparts.

Similarly, a person who is not serious might be able to take a joke more or laugh and make fun of things more easily.

Essentially, then, a good sense of humor or a humorous personality can be described as high cheerfulness, low seriousness, and low bad mood.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of humor, temperament and personality, how did you study it, and what did you find?

Being in a lab that studied humor is a lot of fun and the researchers are always laughing and fun to be around, yet they take their work so seriously! I am very grateful for my graduate supervisors and mentors, Professor Drs. Donald Saklofske, Willibald Ruch, and Francesca Chiesi, who have inspired different ideas in me during my doctoral program.

I first became interested in studying humor when I studied with Professor Willibald Ruch at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. I received the ThinkSwiss Scholarship and the Canada Graduate Scholarship Michael Smith Foreign Supplement to study at the University of Zurich for four months during my PhD.

As we talked about earlier, the temperamental basis of humor proposes that a person with high cheerfulness, low seriousness, and low bad mood have a "good" sense of humor.

This means that they will be likely to engage in humor-related activities, smile, and laugh. Studies from Professor Ruch's lab in Switzerland have shown cheerful people are more likely to engage with a clowning experimenter and show more Duchenne smiling than social smiles.

A Duchenne smile is the type that we call an authentic and genuine smile, the kind that wrinkles up with crow's feet, as opposed to polite, social smiles. The three traits of cheerfulness, seriousness, and bad mood can be measured with the State-Trait Cheerfulness Inventory, a well-researched tool translated in over 10 languages.

We tend to measure participants' cheerfulness, seriousness, and bad mood using self-report, a questionnaire you fill out yourself, or peer-report measures, a questionnaire that someone knows you well fills out for you. There are pros and cons to both self-report and peer-report.

With self-report, you have more access to how you personally think or feel that you might not have shared with close friends or loved ones.

With peer-report, other people might have more access to how you behave in typical situations and it might be less impacted by personal biases, like social desirability.

I found quite a few interesting findings during my Ph.D. to evaluate the self-report version of the State-Trait Cheerfulness Inventory.

The first question we may have is, can we trust peoples' self- report that if they say they are cheerful, that they are in fact cheerful?

We may question the practice of self-report: what if these participants just think they're cheerful and no one else agrees? How do we know that the self-report manifests behaviourally? If a self-report construct, like cheerfulness, does not manifest behaviourally, then we may not have a valid construct we are, in fact, measuring.

To test whether participants' self-report of their cheerfulness lined up with how others perceived them, I had participants complete writing tasks where they wrote about their week. Unacquainted judges, who were not aware of the participants' background (for example, their age, gender, ethnicity), were asked to rate these tasks and give an educated guess based on their writing how cheerful they are.

Our findings showed that peoples' self-report and judges' ratings were moderately correlated, which means self-report cheerfulness reflected how the participants completed the writing task, and judges were able, to some extent, know if the anonymous writer identifies as a cheerful person.

Now, people who identified as being cheerful based on self-report might also use different words compared to people who are less cheerful.

We used a program in our research called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) that categorizes the types of words people use.

Trait cheerfulness was positively associated with more word use and clout, which suggests greater social status, confidence, or leadership conveyed in writing.

Trait cheerfulness was also positively associated with emotional tone, indicating a more positive and upbeat tone in the choice of words detected by the program.

My research shows that self-report cheerfulness manifests itself in behavioral ways.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

Some of my research has shown some modifications to this temperamental basis of humor model.

For one, it seems like the role of seriousness largely depends on different factors and there may be some cultural differences.

In China, seriousness seems to be highly valued. As I mentioned earlier, we proposed that the temperamental traits of humor include high cheerfulness, low seriousness, and low bad mood.

Seriousness tends to function differently in various cultures. Seriousness showed negative associations with well-being in Spain, but my own research suggests seriousness shows positive associations with well-being in China. Early Chinese philosophies described Confucius as respectful and showed tasteful, good-natured humor while retaining a serious attitude for life.

Compared to China, seriousness in Western cultures may be regarded as a stringent or inflexible way of thinking. My research shows that we may have to adapt this model depending on the cultural context because of the different functioning of seriousness.

Your research talks about two different styles of humor namely beneficial and detrimental humor? Is one inherently better than the other?

The most well-known forms of humor in psychology are the four humor styles, measured by the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, and Weir (2003) have developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire, an international, widely used self-report instrument that measures two functions of benign styles of humor, namely self-enhancing and affiliative styles, and two maladaptive styles, namely aggressive and self-defeating styles, relevant to psychological well-being.

The Humor Styles Questionnaire has been used to measure individual differences in humor in over 125 published studies in over 30 languages.

Within the benign styles of humor:

  1. Affiliative humor involves sharing jokes in a witty manner to enhance interpersonal relationships and is associated with decreased levels of anxiety, depression, and attachment avoidance.
  1. Self-enhancing humor involves using humor to maintain a positive perspective and humorous outlook in life for a realistic perspective in stressful situations and is associated with mental toughness and reduced anxiety. Self-enhancing humor is also known as using humor to cope, since it can positively change a person's perspective under stressful scenarios

Benign humor styles seem to have psychosocial benefits for the people using it since people using benign humor styles tend to be more well-liked. When affiliative and self-enhancing humorous comments from a casual acquaintance were presented to unacquainted judges, judges revealed more positive ratings and less social rejection of the acquaintance.

Unlike the affiliative styles:

  1. Aggressive humor involves teasing and demeaning others to elevate oneself and self-defeating humor involves self-ridicule, teasing one's own weaknesses, and making fun of oneself to gain social acceptance. Maladaptive humor styles are positively associated with negative psychological outcomes, including spitefulness, loneliness, sub-clinical psychopathy and Machiavellianism, and parental rejection.
  2. In the context of coping, self-defeating humor may provide denial and escape for underlying negative feelings, while aggressive humor allows one to gain power or demonstrate superiority within a social interaction. Recent correlational studies aligned with this view, as disinhibition was positively associated with the aggressive humor and self-defeating humor style and antagonism was positively associated with the aggressive humor style.

As you can imagine, aggressive humor can be detrimental to your social relationships while self-defeating humor might make you feel bad about yourself. This line of research shows the importance of paying attention to the kind of humor that you might personally engage in.

In my research where I investigated how different styles of humor interact with each other, I found that there appears to be different styles that correlate together. These styles include laughing with others (e.g., fun, laughter, enjoyment of humor), laughing at others (e.g., aggressive humor, mockery), and mixed styles (e.g., wit, cognitive humor, irony) emerged within the network. More research needs to look at how mixed styles that have a larger cognitive component function in social interactions.

What is humorlessness and what temperamental traits in a person would you consider to be related to it?

Essentially, humorlessness can be reflected as the opposite of the model we described as low cheerfulness, high seriousness, and high bad mood. If you imagine someone who only talks about serious topics who has a not-so-cheerful disposition, you might not feel that comfortable telling a joke or joking around with them.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone trying to better understand why their sense of humor manifests in certain ways in different situations.

I would say the biggest takeaway is that you don't need to be funny to have a sense of humor. As I mentioned earlier, we ca-n look at humor as a personality or ability.

My own research actually found that temperamental traits (like high cheerfulness, seriousness, and bad mood) do not predict humor ability, so being more cheerful, not surprisingly, doesn't make you funnier, at least in our study.

This means that having a cheerful personality where you tend to laugh and joke around more does not necessarily make you funnier and vice versa. However, there are many benefits to being cheerful.

My research has shown cheerfulness is associated with optimism, self-esteem, and resiliency.

One of my research findings showed that cheerful people had better management of conflict and better problem-solving compared to their less cheerful counterparts when judges rated how well they solved an interpersonal problem.

There seems to be a lot of benefits to staying cheerful and engaging in humor in everyday life.