In 1979, a New York Post editor by the name of Norman Cousins published a memoir called Anatomy of an Illness. The book, which described how Cousins used laughter to help him recover from an ill-defined disorder, was a smash hit, and did quite a bit to further the idea of humor as a panacea. It’s a notion that persists today, and not just in clichés (“laughter is the best medicine”); when you have a particularly awful day, it’s natural to reach for a comedy or seek out an excuse for laughs as a pick-me-up.
But that’s not quite right: Humor isn’t an unqualified good, and a psychology researcher named Rod Martin, who recently retired from the University of Western Ontario, has dedicated his career to proving it. Martin was just starting out in the field when Cousins published his book; Intrigued by its message, he decided to investigate its scientific merit — but before he could do that, he had to figure out how to measure humor, an amorphous, multifaceted concept, in a scientific way.
At the time, humor research was considered a fringe interest in psychology. Attempts to study humor looked less like scientific measurements and more like BuzzFeed quizzes: Researchers would present people with a series of jokes and cartoons and ask them which ones they found funny, assuming that the answers would reveal something about the respondent’s personality. The problem was, these studies failed to find a relationship between personality and taste in jokes. Self-reports of humor, meanwhile, are notoriously unreliable (everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor, and at least some of them have to be wrong).
Martin took a different tactic: Modeling his approach after recently developed tests to measure anxiety, he focused not on the jokes themselves, but on how respondents used humor in everyday life. The end result would become his signature work: the Humor Styles Questionnaire, the first scientifically validated measure of humor. In 2003, Martin and his colleagues published the HSQ in the Journal of Research in Personality; today, it’s in common use all over the world.
The HSQ divides humor into four main styles: Affiliative, Self-Enhancing, Aggressive, and Self-Defeating. Affiliative humor means cracking jokes, engaging in banter, and otherwise using humor to make others like us. Self-enhancing humor is an optimistic, coping humor, characterized by the ability to laugh at yourself or at the absurdity of a situation and feel better as a result. Aggressive humor is characterized by sarcasm, teasing, criticism, and ridicule. Self-defeating humor is attempting to get others to like us by putting ourselves down. See for yourself which category best describes your own sense of humor (though it’s important to note that the lines between humor styles aren’t hard and fast, however, nor are the categories mutually exclusive — everyone’s individual sense of humor is a unique combination of all four styles).
Unlike his predecessors, Martin did find a link between certain humor styles and certain traits: Affiliative and self-enhancing humor are linked to extraversion and openness to new experiences, and self-defeating humor to neuroticism. Affiliative and self-enhancing humor are also generally adaptive, both correlated with greater mental well-being, while aggressive and self-defeating humor are generally maladaptive. There are plenty of exceptions, though: Aggressive and self-defeating jokes can be fine and even beneficial when used sparingly and in the right context. Likewise, even affiliative and self-enhancing humor can become maladaptive when used in excess. “Some people are always laughing and joking as a way of avoiding issues,” Martin says.
“It’s really the way we use humor that is most important,” he adds. “Not so much how funny you are, but how you use humor in advancing relationships or in detrimental ways.”
This may be the key to understanding humor’s relationship to well-being: It’s all in how you wield it. Someone who goes overboard with aggressive humor, for example, may feel better about themselves in the short term by putting other people down. But sooner or later, they may find people pulling away for fear of becoming a target; eventually, their relationships may deteriorate, along with their psychological well-being. In one 2014 study led by Sara Caird, a graduate student of Martin’s, couples who reported using more aggressive humor also had lower relationship satisfaction; on the flip side, when people engaged in more affiliative and adaptive humor with their partners, they experienced a greater sense of intimacy and reported more positive and less negative moods.
So if humor doesn’t primarily serve to promote psychological well-being, what does it do? “I think it primarily has a social function.” Martin says. “From an evolutionary perspective, we evolved as a social animal. We needed other people to survive. So anything that can enhance the cohesiveness of groups of people was adaptive,” even when that cohesion came at the expense of outsiders: “Humor is a very aggressive thing,” he adds. “You’re laughing with your friends, at your enemies. There’s aspects of that I think can be maladaptive in the here and now that might have been adaptive in one time.” Humor was never a panacea, but it is a powerful tool — one that can be used for positive purposes, but only if you so choose.
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