The Science of Humour
What makes something funny? How do scientists define ‘humour’, and what do they know about its effects of well-being? Humour and amusement may not be the first things that come to mind when you’re thinking about the kinds of areas that social scientists – psychologists included, often study through a scientific lens. But the science of humour has been – and continues to be, a topic of extensive research. Researchers distinguish between humour and its associated emotional state – amusement. Humour consists of “amusing communications that produce positive emotions and cognitions in the individual, group, or organization” . Amusement, conversely, is a pleasant emotion resulting from humorous communication, eliciting positive affective experiences from targets, and prompting expressions such as smiling and laughter . Simply put, humour is any form of a funny, amusing statement, observation – perhaps a joke, that elicits the mirthful and pleasant emotion we call amusement. There have been numerous ways in which this individual difference has been defined and measured.
Do you think you have a good sense of humour? A good sense of humour extends beyond your ability to tell jokes and tickle others’ funny bones. It also refers to a habitual pattern (you laugh frequently), general cheerfulness, the tendency of enjoying humour, a positive attitude towards the follies of the world and others, a worldview, or even a coping strategy . Broadly speaking, all this means is that you don’t need to be able to crack a good joke to be someone with a good sense of humour. Humour has also been considered a character strength – the popular VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) considers a sense of humour as “one who is skilled at laughing and gentle teasing, at bringing smiles to the faces of others, at seeing the lighter side, and at making (not necessarily telling) jokes. .” Like a good joke every once in a while? See the light (-hearted) side of things even under the most demanding situations? Observant and witty in your observations of the foibles of your daily 9-5 office grind? You could well be someone with a sense of humour, even if you aren’t the most comical character in your workplace.
The office is probably one of the last few places you’d expect to be jovial or filled with laughter – but researchers have found that in healthy doses, mirth, enjoyment of a good joke now and then, along with amusement, can be beneficial for our well-being and our productivity. Feeling and even savouring amusement in work not only promotes healthier work environments – it can even have a noticeable impact on how we perform. Psychologists have, however, pointed out that individuals have different styles of humour – and their effects on workplace-related outcomes may vary. One classification of humour styles can be observed – and measured, via the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ). Initially developed by humour researcher Rod Martin and colleagues, the HSQ distinguishes between four humour styles – self-enhancing, affiliative, aggressive, and self-defeating . Much of the research on the positive effects of humour revolves around how self-enhancing and affiliative humour can be beneficial in the workplace. The authors define self-enhancing and affiliative forms of humour as benign, mostly ‘positive’ forms of humour.
Self-Enhancing Humour Helps Us Cope and Reappraise Difficult Situations
Seeing the lighter side of difficult circumstances and using humour to cope, for instance, is an example of self-enhancing humour. For instance, one study used comics – one of which featured a character stating, “Only in math problems can you buy 60 cantaloupes, and no one asks you what the hell is wrong with you.” Observations of the event and conveying it in a manner that highlights its novelty and quirks and absurdity – and doing so even for the most demanding of situations, can be an effective way of coping. Indeed, this study showed that self-enhancing humour has been shown to reduce state anxiety . In another study, researchers found that nurses who scored higher on a humour orientation measure were also more likely to report better ability to cope with their tasks and ranked their jobs as being more satisfying than those scoring low on this measure . The nurses in this study also used humour when caring for patients – the appropriate use of humour during serious tasks promoted a heightened ability to cope with their demanding and important role.
Affiliative Humour Helps Leaders Empower Employees and Enhance their Performance
Studies also show that the use of affiliative humour can be used to empower and enhance professional relationships. Affiliative humour, in this study, was assessed by the extent to which individuals tell or share jokes with colleagues, along with the enjoyment of relating stories and accounts that result in amusement. Simply put, while self-enhancing humour is directed towards coping and more ‘personal’ use of humour for managing one’s stresses, affiliative humour is other-directed. It is a form of humour directed towards fostering and enhancing bonds between individuals. An inside joke, the “I know what/who you are referring to” that accompanies a wry smile is just one way in which individuals subtly convey shared experiences, a common identity and even empathy with each other. The use of self-affiliative humour may be especially useful in leader-follower interactions. One study showed that a leader’s humour has a positive influence on their followers’ psychological empowerment . This study, consisting of service employees, also showed that the leader’s use of humour was particularly impactful on new employees, who felt more positive about their new workplaces when leaders used positive than when they used negative humour. In another study, leader’s use of humour was positively associated with their leadership styles – more active and transformational forms of leadership were associated with greater use of humour, though this also suggests that leaders can enhance their perceptions of such effective leadership styles through the use of humour . The study also found that a leader’s use of humour was linked to their unit’s performance, measured by the percentage of goals achieved by their teams.
The results from the studies above are also evident in a meta-analysis of 49 studies consisting of 8,532 employees. Appropriate use of and the experience positive humour leads to reductions in employee burnout, stress, and withdrawal. Affiliative humour is associated with better employee task performance, cohesion, and satisfaction with leaders . The science of humour tells us that cultivating a culture of mirth and amusement is no laughing matter; its effects could very well extend to our health, morale, and coping with the challenges we regularly face in the workplace.