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Curious About Laughter? You’re in Good Company

Everyone reflects on laughter and humor, but how frequently?

Key points

  • Those seeking a more complete understanding of laughter and humor make up a diverse community of theorists, researchers, and lay persons.
  • Business owners, advertisers, and human resources departments learn about humor to facilitate productivity and reduce workplace stress.
  • If intentions are unclear, someone's sense of humor can sometimes damage friendships, job opportunities, and even family ties.
Image by Tawny Nina Botha from Pixabay
Source: Image by Tawny Nina Botha from Pixabay

As the name suggests, this blog is loosely patterned on an imagined introductory university course meant to acquaint students with the fundamentals of laughter and humor (L&H)…as I understand them, of course. With that, I thought you’d like to know who might be sharing the classroom with you. It’s a rather diverse group, for everyone ponders these facets of the human experience at one time or another. The only variables seem to be how often and to what degree.

Laughter and Humor in Theory and Practice

You might be surprised to learn there are full-time humor scholars, both theorists, and experimentalists, who run research labs or teach university courses and publish their findings in international journals such as Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, The European Journal of Humour Research, and The Israeli Journal of Humor Research.

For most other academics and clinicians, L&H are merely two aspects, though important ones, of a much broader interest in human behavior. Many have backgrounds in cognitive sciences such as clinical and experimental psychiatry and psychology, particularly social and evolutionary psychology. Some come from disciplines that focus on the interactions between individuals and groups. They occupy the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology, and communication, particularly the nonverbal subspecialty. The in-group versus out-group property of humor would be one such topic of interest.

Mind and Behavior

Experts in animal behavior are also drawn to these subjects, particularly primatologists, since our Great Ape cousins—gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans—all employ laughter-like vocalizations like young human children. Members of the medical community are in the mix as well: neurologists, physiologists, and endocrinologists may study laughter’s origin in the brain, how it affects illness-related stress and anxiety in general, and its influence upon the healing process. Doctors and nurses involved with end-of-life care, for example, investigate L&H’s role in accepting the challenges unique to that circumstance.

Professionals

There are numerous other professionals whose work would benefit from a fuller understanding of laughter. School counselors, family and marriage counselors, mental health counselors, grief counselors—they all evaluate and interact with individuals who use L&H either as coping tools or, in too many cases, as weapons to denigrate and demean others. Educators, for instance, use humor to reduce student anxiety, increase attention, facilitate memorization, and help deescalate inter-student conflicts in school or after-school settings.

Mediation and Business

Social workers, police officers, first responders, and others who interact with people in high-stress situations are also drawn to this topic. Mediators, negotiators, lawyers, and judges all need to evaluate the emotional and mental state of others. Business owners, advertisers, human resources departments, supervisors, and managers key in on L&H to evaluate prospective employees, increase productivity, reduce work-related stress, deal with workplace disputes, increase sales, and inspire client loyalty.

Professional Humorists

Then there are those whose livelihood depends entirely on their best guess as to why we laugh. They constitute a vast community of professionals that creates the humor we enjoy daily: cartoonists, writers, editors, and publishers; movie and television producers, directors, and composers. They are performers too, stand-up comedians and actors, singers, dancers, and even clowns. Their talent and dedication bring the joy of laughter to many millions, and in the process, generate billions in revenue. All must navigate the complex landscape of personal experience, knowledge, culture, and politics that influence the laugh response of their audiences.

Every Other Person on Earth

Last but certainly not least are members of the lay community who find L&H of interest, even if we reflect on them only occasionally. After all, our sense of humor can make or break friendships, job opportunities, and even cherished family ties.

We’ve all dealt with the fallout of humor attempts that missed the mark or resulted in the unintended offense. We’ve wondered if a coworker’s laughter was sincere or feigned or if the boy- or girlfriend’s “joking” insult portends an imminent breakup. We took seriously something that was said in jest and laughed at something meant to be serious. Or perhaps our laughter came at a time, or with an intensity, that caused others to question our motives, friendship, and loyalty. The list is long.

Roll Call

Will the experts find their way to a blog titled Laughter and Humor 101? Eventually, I hope. They’ve gone a long way with the theories they currently favor. But there will be times when the conceptual model they use to make sense of L&H will come up short. The Mutual Vulnerability Theory (MVT) that I advocate will handle certain questions a bit more thoroughly or a little more parsimoniously. (Its explanation for the contagious quality of laughter will be one such case.) So they may check in from time to time.

Their students, too, might be looking for an approach distinct from their mentors. Or they may want to test the MVT as a means of demonstrating critical thinking skills without having to pick apart the weakness of their professor’s favorite conceptual model.

Expert, researcher, humorist, or amateur, I’m confident those who “attend” Laughter and Humor 101 will acquire something of value. If, in the end, the MVT is no better than other theories, it will be one more tool in the toolbox used to understand laughter and the humor that inspires it. On the other hand, if it is the universal theory I believe it to be, MVT will provide the single most useful explanation available to explore these amazing behaviors.

© John Charles Simon

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