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.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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