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Humor (positive psychology)

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Humor is defined as “the tendency of particular cognitive responses to provoke laughter, physical reaction, and provide amusement.”[1] Wikipedia:Humor is experienced across all ages and cultures. In Wikipedia:positive psychology, humor is studied in a variety of functions, particularly as a coping mechanism and as a character strength in the Wikipedia:broaden-and-build theory. An empirical definition of humor remains elusive due to its dependence on and variance across cultures. However, humor is correlated with good Wikipedia:self-efficacy[2] and Wikipedia:resilience.

Laughter 2 by David Shankbone

Two girls laughing

Major Theoretical Approaches to HumorEdit

Historical Approaches to HumorEdit

Superiority theory, incongruity theory, and relief theory have changed the perception and development of humor theories.

An early notable theory, superiority theory, holds that amusement and laughter arise from recognizing one's own superiority over others. It was made famous by Wikipedia:Thomas Hobbes and traces back to Wikipedia:Aristotle and Wikipedia:Plato, who are considered superiority theorists because of their emphasis on the aggressive feelings which fuel humor.[3] The superiority theory marks one of the first major successful attempts to explain the causes of humor. Aristotle claims that comedy (i.e., humor) originates in the perceived inferiority of other men.[4] According to Plato, we laugh at the self-ignorance of others.[5] Hobbes claimed that “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”[6]

Made famous by Wikipedia:Immanuel Kant, incongruity theory holds that humor arises from perceived discrepancies between what is expected and what is observed. This theory first established an underlying characterization of objects of humor. Immanuel Kant states that “something absurd (something in which, therefore, the understanding can of itself find no delight) must be present in whatever is to raise a hearty convulsive laugh.”[7]

Relief theory does not attempt to define humor, but instead states the purpose of humor as a release of tension or energy. Wikipedia:Sigmund Freud and Wikipedia:Herbert Spencer are the two most prominent relief theorists.[3] Relief theory was one of the first major theories to focus on the functional role of humor and laughter. It is also important as one of the first scientific theories of humor. Unlike Kant and Hobbes, Freud and Spencer tested the relief theory with empirical physical data rather than constructing a purely philosophical model of humor.

Current Theories on HumorEdit

Main article: Theories of humor

Present theories of humor have critiqued and built upon these earlier historical theories. Their methodologies span disciplines as diverse as (but not limited to) literature, psychology, biology, linguistics, history, sociology, and philosophy. While there are countless theories to describe humor, most all of them can fall under one of three major categories: response theories, stimulus theories, and functional theories.

Response Theories attempt to characterize the recipient of humor by explaining the conditions and underlying causes of humor. Hobbe’s superiority theory is a response theory. Most psychological studies on the characterization of an individual’s sense of humor and neurological research that examines the neurologic responses to differing humor stimuli can be categorized as response theories because they try to explain the underlying characterization of humor in the recipient.[8]

Stimulus Theories try to characterize the objects of humor. Kant’s incongruity theory and Wikipedia:Victor Raskin's linguistic theories are stimulus theories. Literary research, comic knowledge, and computational humor fall under this category because they try to explain what is and is not funny.[8]

Functional Theories examine the purpose or function of humor. Wikipedia:Gelotology, which deals with the (mainly positive) effects of laughter, and sociological research, which deals with the context of humor, joking habits, and the effects of humorous interaction on groups, fall under the Functional category because they attempt to explain the purpose of humor.[8]

Positive Psychological Theory on HumorEdit

There are two dominating views and a plethora of methodological approaches to measuring humor. The aesthetic view defines humor as a specific subset of amusing and playful behavior (among wit, sarcasm, irony, satire, and like traits of a comic). The other, more popular view in American psychology conceptualizes humor as an umbrella term for all that is considered laughable.[9] In positive psychology, humor is synonymous with playfulness. One of its marked characteristics is not only laughter, but smiling.[10] Presently, there is no agreed upon terminology and no consensual definition in either psychology or positive psychology.

In constructing methodologies for measuring humor, there are nearly as many measuring systems as definitions. Popular measuring systems include Martin’s Situational Humor Response Questionnaire (SHRQ), which focuses on human mirth in daily life, and the Coping Humor Scale (CHS), which deals more with humor being used as a coping measure for stress.[11] Other important humor scales are the Humorous Behavior Q-Sort Deck, Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ), WD Test of Humor Appreciation, and the State-Trait Cheerfulness Inventory (STCI).[12] The different humor tests are indicative of the underlying diversity and lack of consensus in defining humor.

Humor itself eludes concrete and empirical definition for a number of reasons which stem from its identity as a trait, underlying behavior, or emotion, and the diversity in which it expresses itself in different cultures and societies. Sociologically, humor expresses itself differently across gender, culture, nationality, age, social setting, and a number of other factors amongst individuals. Template:Citation needed

Major Empirical FindingsEdit

Humor and LaughterEdit

One of the main focuses of modern psychological humor theory and research is to establish and clarify the correlation between humor and laughter. The major empirical findings here are that Wikipedia:laughter and humor do not always have a one-to-one association. While most previous theories assumed the connection between the two almost to the point of them being synonymous, psychology has been able to scientifically and empirically investigate the supposed connection, its implications, and significance.

In 2009, Diana Szameitat conducted a study to examine the differentiation of emotions in laughter. They hired actors and told them to laugh with one of four different emotional associations by using auto-induction, where they would focus exclusively on the internal emotion and not on the expression of laughter itself. They found an overall recognition rate of 44%, with joy correctly classified at 44%, tickle 45%, schadenfreude 37%, and taunt 50%.[13] Their second experiment tested the behavioral recognition of laughter during an induced emotional state and they found that different laughter types did differ with respect to emotional dimensions.[14] In addition, the four emotional states displayed a full range of high and low sender arousal and valence.[15] This study showed that laughter can be correlated with both positive (joy and tickle) and negative (schadenfreude and taunt) emotions with varying degrees of arousal in the subject.

This brings into question the definition of humor, then. If it is to be defined by the cognitive processes which display laughter, then humor itself can encompass a variety of negative as well as positive emotions. However, if humor is limited to positive emotions and things which cause positive affect, it must be delimited from laughter and their relationship should be further defined.

Humor and HealthEdit

Humor has shown to be effective for increasing resilience in dealing with distress and also effective in undoing negative affects.

Madeljin Strick, Rob Holland, Rick van Baaren, and Ad van Knippenberg (2009) of Radboud University conducted a study that showed the distracting nature of a joke on bereaved individuals.[16] Subjects were presented with a wide range of negative pictures and sentences. Their findings showed that humorous therapy attenuated the negative emotions elicited after negative pictures and sentences were presented. In addition, the humor therapy was more effective in reducing negative affect as the degree of affect increased in intensity.[17] Humor was immediately effective in helping to deal with distress. The escapist nature of humor as a coping mechanism suggests that it is most useful in dealing with momentary stresses. Stronger negative stimuli requires a different therapeutic approach. Template:Citation needed

Humor is an underlying character trait associated with the positive emotions used in the Wikipedia:broaden-and-build theory of cognitive development.

Studies, such as those testing the undoing hypothesis,[18] have shown several positive outcomes of humor as an underlying positive trait in amusement and playfulness. Several studies have shown that positive emotions can restore autonomic quiescence after negative affect. For example, Frederickson and Levinson showed that individuals who expressed Duchenne smiles during the negative arousal of a sad and troubling event recovered from the negative affect approximately 20% faster than individuals who didn’t smile.[19]

Humor can serve as a strong distancing mechanism in coping with adversity. In 1997 Kelter and Bonanno found that Duchenne laughter correlated with reduced awareness of distress.[20] Positive emotion is able to loosen the grip of negative emotions on peoples’ thinking. A distancing of thought leads to a distancing of the unilateral responses people often have to negative arousal. In parallel with the distancing role plays in coping with distress, it supports the Wikipedia:broaden and build theory that positive emotions lead to increased multilateral cognitive pathway and social resource building.

Humor and AgingEdit

Humor has been shown to improve and help the Wikipedia:aging process in three areas. The areas are improving physical health, improving social communications, and helping to achieve a sense of satisfaction in life.

Studies have shown that constant humor in the aging process gives health benefits to individuals. Such benefits as higher Wikipedia:self-esteem, lower levels of depression, Wikipedia:anxiety, and perceived stress, and a more positive self-concept as well as other health benefits which have been recorded and acknowledged through various studies.[21][22] Even patients with specific diseases have shown improvement with aging using humor.[23] Overall there is a strong correlation through constant humor in aging and better health in the individuals.

Another way that research indicates that humor helps with the aging process, is through helping the individual to create and maintain strong social relationship during transitory periods in their lives.[23] One such example is when people are moved into Wikipedia:nursing homes or other facilities of care. With this transition certain social interactions with friend and family may be limited forcing the individual to look else where for these social interactions. Humor has been shown to make transitions easier, as humor is shown reduce stress and facilitate socialization and serves as a social bonding function.[24] Humor may also help the transition in helping the individual to maintain positive feelings toward those who are enforcing the changes in their lives. These new social interactions can be critical for these transitions in their lives and humor will help these new social interactions to take place making these transitions easier.

Humor can also help aging individuals maintain a sense of satisfaction in their lives. Through the aging process many changes will occur, such as losing the right to drive a car. This can cause a decrease in satisfaction in the lives of the individual. Humor helps to alleviate this decrease of satisfaction by allowing the humor to release stress and anxiety caused by changes in the individuals life.[23] Laughing and humor can be a substitute for the decrease in satisfaction by allowing individuals to feel better about their situations by alleviating the stress.[21] This, in turn, can help them to maintain a sense of satisfaction toward their new and changing life style.


Positive psychology in particular holds that humor, as a specific character trait, serves to increase Wikipedia:Psychological resilience in coping with adversity and also helps in cognitive development to increase both Wikipedia:creativity and Wikipedia:generativity by encouraging multiple pathway solutions and analysis of challenges.

To enjoy the benefits of humor, many programs have been designed to cultivate humor and playfulness for use in hospital, educational, and counseling settings, among other places.[25] A representative example is found in Mcghee (1999). In his program, he outlines an eight-step program that encompass a range of difficulties.[26] Although no published data exists on it, Simone Sassenrath reported that a group of adults had increased self-reported changes in humor, playfulness, and positive mood at one month after the end of the program.[26]


Humor can serve multiple psychological functions, whether it is conceptualized as a personality trait, a strength of character, a coping mechanism, a world view, an attitude, an emotion-based temperament, an aesthetic preference, an ability and competence, or a virtue.[27] As a character strength and virtue, humor is especially applicable in psychology. Because of the great cultural and individual variation of what people find humorous, and because of the ambivalence of how humor itself is defined in a cognitive and social sense, a great variety of measuring methods have developed for humor. However, despite how the different methods have shaped how humor is measured and its effects, its major correlation with Wikipedia:resilience to adversity and long-term Wikipedia:creativity and Wikipedia:generativity in cognitive development render it an invaluable trait in the field of Wikipedia:positive psychology. As a coping mechanism, it is apparent that the merely distracting nature of humor makes other methods desirable for more negative stimuli. Cultivating humor may prove to be a valuable approach to helping individuals strive for happiness and to help cope with daily stresses.

See alsoEdit


  1. "Wikipedia:Humour." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 October 2001. Web. 24 April 2010.
  2. Evans-Palmer, T. (2010). The relationship between sense of humor and self-efficacy: An exploration of the beliefs of art teachers. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 70,
  3. 3.0 3.1 Smuts, Aaron. “Humor.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 12 April 2009. Web. 24 April 2010. [1]
  4. Aristotle, trans. Butcher, S.H.. “Poetics.” The Internet Classics. Web Atomics. 2000. Web. 23 April 2010. [2]. Part I.
  5. Plato, trans. Frede, Dorothea. Philebus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1993. Print, 58-59.
  6. Hobbes, Thomas. The Elements of Law and Politic. University of Virginia Library. Feb. 2002. Web. 26 April 2010. [3]. Ch. 9.
  7. Kant, Immanuel, trans. Meredith, James. The Critique of Judgment. 1790. Web. [4]. Sec 1.4.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Wikipedia:Humor research." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 June 2008. Web. 24 April 2010.
  9. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 585.
  10. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 583.
  11. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 588.
  12. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 589-590.
  13. Szameitat, Diana P., et al. Differentiation of Emotions in Laughter at the Behavioral Level. 2009 Emotion 9 (3), 399.
  14. Szameitat, Diana P., et al. Differentiation of Emotions in Laughter at the Behavioral Level. 2009 Emotion 9 (3), 401-402.
  15. Szameitat, Diana P., et al. Differentiation of Emotions in Laughter at the Behavioral Level. 2009 Emotion 9 (3), 403.
  16. Strick, Madelijn et al. Finding Comfort in a Joke: Consolatory Effects of Humor Through Cognitive Distraction. Emotion, 9 (4), 574-578.
  17. Strick, Madelijn et al. Finding Comfort in a Joke: Consolatory Effects of Humor Through Cognitive Distraction. Emotion, 9 (4), 575-576.
  18. Barbara L. Fredrickson. What Good Are Positive Emotions?. Review of General Psychology, volume 2 (3), 313.
  19. Barbara L. Fredrickson. What Good Are Positive Emotions?. Review of General Psychology, volume 2 (3), 314.
  20. Keltner, D., & Bonanno, G.A. (1997). A study of laughter and dissociation: Distinct correlates of laughter and smiling during bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 687-702.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Abel, M. (2002). Humor, stress, and coping strategies. International Journal of Humor Research, 15(4), 365-381.
  22. Kupier, N.A., & Martin, R.A. (1993). Humor and self-concept. International Journal of Humor Research, 6(3), 251-270.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Template:Cite journal
  24. Shelley A. Crawford & Nerina J. Caltabiano (2011): Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, 6:3, 237-252
  25. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 596.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press, 597.
  27. W. Ruch, R.T. Proyer & M. Weber "Humor as a character strength among the elderly" February 2010

External linksEdit

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