Why humor is an essential life skill

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% of men and 81% 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 humor, and 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 the silence that a somber occasion like that would 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 afterwards, 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 as 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 be a 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% more ideas than those who did not.

Can humor be taught?

The benefits of a good sense of humor are so profound that colleges like Stanford are offering business courses on humor in the workplace with the goal of teaching "the power (and importance) of humor to make and scale positive change in the world, and also – surprise! – to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories."

At Big Think Edge, we asked 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.

Fortunately, psychologists are divided about 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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.