If you have to explain it…it probably isn’t funny. Some scientists have taken on the unfunny task of researching and explaining humor and are learning the reasons behind what we already knew: laughing makes us feel better. Humor is a whole mind-body and social experience; it’s a cognitive ability that gets our emotions and our bodies involved in the act, and it also connects us to other people.
Cognitively, to find things funny we need to be able to shift perspective, perceive incongruities and paradoxes, and be surprised and delighted by the unexpected—the punch line. This causes us to switch into a playful, rather than a serious, frame of mind. When we are amused, we are in a state of observation, which gives us a bit of psychological space or distance from our circumstances.
Emotionally, the unique positive emotion associated with humor is called mirth. Mirth can range in intensity from mild amusement to side-splitting hilarity. Like other emotions, mirth produces changes in the biochemistry of our brain and hormone system. Laughter is the nonverbal behavior that communicates to others that we are experiencing the emotion of mirth. The unique sounds of laughter also arouse feelings of mirth in listeners, causing them to begin laughing as well.
Physiologically, when we’re experiencing the emotion of mirth, there is an increase in dopamine activity in the pleasure center in the limbic system of the brain. This is the “reward center” of the brain that is activated by other positive emotions and activities. During times of mirth, the brain also produces endorphins, which raise our pain threshold and can reduce pain we may already be feeling. Mirth also triggers a relaxation response, causing our legs and arms to become weak. Have you ever laughed so hard that you couldn’t keep standing and fell to the floor?
Socially, humor is usually shared with others—we laugh most often when we’re with other people, and laughter is just as contagious as yawning. Other people are also the focus of most humor – we laugh at the funny things people say and do. Sharing laughs can help us bond with family and friends. And it can make us more attractive. Studies have shown that men who produce humor are more attractive to women—and men are more attracted to women who laugh at their jokes.
Humor is beneficial to us when it is what researchers call “affiliative” or “self-enhancing.” Affiliative humor is amusing and being amused by others. Self-enhancing humor is maintaining an amused outlook on life; being able to laugh at yourself (self-deprecating humor) and see the humor in your circumstances.
The dark side of humor
Aggressive humor is contemptuous, hostile, and manipulative. It is used to display a lack of respect and to hurt others. Self-defeating humor is the use of humor to amuse others at one’s own expense in a self-disparaging way. This can be a defense mechanism for low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Humor can also be used to mask or avoid something that is wrong and needs attention. Forms of “humor” such as sarcasm, schadenfreude (delighting in another’s misfortune), hurtful teasing, and attacks based on race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or other aspects of people’s identity tear apart the social fabric and lead to reduced well-being among individuals and communities.
The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Martin, R. A.
"Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers." Mobbs, D., et al. Neuron, 40.
"Production and appreciation of humor as sexually selected traits." Bressler, E. R., et al. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(2).
"Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being." Martin, R. A., et al. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1).
"The influence of film-induced mood on pain perception." Weisenberg, M., et al. Pain, 76(3).
"Is motor inhibition during laughter due to emotional or respiratory influences?" Overeem, S., et al. Psychophysiology, 41(2).