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Why having a good sense of humor is essential in life

From your health to leadership, a good sense of humor can improve nearly every aspect of life.

  • Studies have shown that a sense of humor can improve your mental and physical health, boost your attractiveness, and improve your leadership skills.
  • There are a variety of theories and styles of humor, each of which can improve your understanding of the subject.
  • Humor may be a critical life skill, but can it be taught?

Mark Twain said that "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place." He's certainly not wrong. Humor may very well be the great thing.

It touches upon nearly every facet of life — 90 percent of men and 81 percent of women report that a sense of humor is the most important quality in a partner, it's a crucial quality for leaders, and it's even been shown to improve cancer treatments.

There's no doubt that humor is a life skill that everybody needs, but how do we define it? Can it be taught?

What is humor?

The best way to kill a joke is to explain it, but psychologists have tried to do so anyhow. There are three main theories on what humor is and where it comes from:

Relief theory argues that laughter and humor are ways of blowing off psychological steam, a way to release psychic energy. That's why jokes told at funerals are often met not with silence, as a somber occasion such as that might merit, but with uproarious laughter instead.

Superiority theory was originally formulated by Plato and Aristotle to explain a specific kind of humor: why we laugh at other's misfortunes. In this theory, humor is a means of declaring one's superiority over others. If you're looking to cultivate a sense of humor to improve your leadership skills, this is not the kind you want to acquire.

Incongruity theory argues that humor arises when two contrasting, distinct ideas are mingled. Humor often subverts expectations, and punchlines are often the result of an unexpected reversal. Consider Oscar Wilde's "Work is the curse of the drinking classes" — it's funny because it both reverses a common phrase and because it subverts a more conventional way of looking at the world. (Admittedly, this dry explanation probably doesn't make it seem funny in the slightest right now.)

What are the benefits of a sense of humor?

Being funny is possibly one of the best things you can do for your health. You can almost think of a sense of humor as your mind's immune system. People at risk for depression tend to fall into depressive episodes when exposed to some kind of negative stimuli, and afterward, it becomes easier and easier for them to relapse into depression. However, reframing a negative event in a humorous light acts as a kind of emotional filter, preventing the negativity from triggering a depressive episode.

Humor doesn't just guard against depression. It also improves people's overall quality of life. Researchers have found that people who score highly in certain types of humor have better self-esteem, more positive affect, greater self-competency, more control over anxiety, and better performance in social interactions. Not all kinds of humor are made equal, however. In the same study, the researchers identified four types of humor: affiliative humor, or humor designed to strengthen social bonds; self-enhancing humor, which is akin to having a humorous view of life in general; aggressive humor, such is mocking others; and self-defeating humor, in which an individual encourages jokes that have themselves as the target or self-deprecate.

The positive contributions mentioned above only occurred when individuals scored highly in affiliative and self-enhancing humor, while aggressive and self-defeating humor was associated with poorer overall well-being and higher anxiety and depression. So, when cultivating your sense of humor, it's important to strive for the right kind — besides, it's a crummy thing to make fun of others, anyhow.

In addition to working as a mental immune system, research has shown that humor can actually improve your physical immune system. Laughter can also improve cardiovascular health and lowers heart rates, blood pressure, and muscular tension.

Aside from improving your health, laughter can also lead to greater creativity and productivity tool as well. A study from Northeastern University found that volunteers who watched a comedy were measurably better at solving a word association puzzle that relied on creative thinking as compared to control groups that watched horror films or quantum physics lectures. This is because laughter lights up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention and decision-making.

Another study measured people's performance on a brainstorming task and found that participants who were asked to come up with a New Yorker-style caption generated 20 percent more ideas than those who did not.

Can humor be taught?

The benefits of a good sense of humor are so profound that colleges such as Stanford are offering business courses on humor in the workplace. The big goal? To teach students how "to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories." It doesn't stop there, though. The professors believe humor has the power to "make and scale positive change in the world."

At Big Think Edge, we asked actor John Cleese to teach viewers how to hone their sense of humor to improve quality of life and creative intelligence. You can watch a sample of Cleese's course in the video below:

Every human has an innate sense of humor, of course, but it's pretty evident that not everybody has a good sense of humor. Learning about theories of humor, while interesting and insightful, don't guarantee that one's ability to deliver a punchline will improve in any measurable degree. It would be distressing to learn about humor's many benefits only to discover that it's an entirely a product of genetics. There certainly seems to be some genetic component, at least; researchers have linked a sense of humor to certain variants of the 5-HTTLPR gene.

Still, psychologists are divided on whether humor is an innate or learnable trait. There's no such thing as a completely humorless individual — comedy is a fundamental part of human nature. In the past, we believed that only some cultures developed humor, but this belief has changed, as no culture has ever been found that was devoid of laughter and comedy. So, if you want to improve your sense of humor, trying to look on the funny side of life won't hurt. The worst case scenario is that you'll laugh a little more.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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