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What makes something funny? Can humor improve our lives?


Ever notice that we take our comedians seriously and we think our politicians are liars? Is something wrong there?

Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Patton Oswalt not only make you laugh but they usually have you nodding your head thinking, “Yeah, life is like that.” Meanwhile, you take everything an elected official says with a grain of salt.

Research is finally starting to catch up to what you’ve known for a long time.

Why do you find things funny?

Humor is the brain rewarding us for finding errors and inconsistencies in our thinking.

Via The Boston Globe‘s review of Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind:

Hurley and his coauthors begin from the idea that our brains make sense of our daily lives via a never ending series of assumptions, based on sparse, incomplete information. All these best guesses simplify our world, give us critical insights into the minds of others, and streamline our decisions. But mistakes are inevitable, and even a small faulty assumption can open the door to bigger and costlier mistakes.

Enter mirth, a little pulse of reward the brain gives itself for seeking out and correcting our mistaken assumptions. A sense of humor is the lure that keeps our brains alert for the gaps between our quick-fire assumptions and reality.

This is why you think good comedians are also telling the truth about life. They’re pointing out the inconsistencies and craziness, the errors we take for granted until they’re pointed out.

You know the old saying “it’s funny because it’s true”? It’s correct. We laugh more when we feel the jokes are true. The more error correction, the bigger the reward.

Chris Rock’s humor about how men and women relate is so accurate it’s been written up in scientific papers. Tina Fey’s Palin imitation changed how people voted.

All forms of play are about learning.

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents.

Most animals stop playing and learning once they reach adulthood. Humans are unique in that they have the capacity to play all their lives. Why? Nature designed us to be lifelong learners:

We are designed to be lifelong players, built to benefit from play at any age. The human animal is shaped by evolution to be the most flexible of all animals: as we play we continue to change and adapt into old age.

So making laughs and guffaws sounds a lot more impressive now, huh? It probably doesn’t surprise you too much to hear that funny people are smarter than average. Students who are playful do better in school:

Playfulness was associated with better academic performance (i.e., better grades in an exam). Also, students who described themselves as playful were more likely to do the extra reading that went beyond what was needed to pass the exam. This can be seen as first evidence of a positive relation between playfulness in adults and academic achievement.

Why do women always cite “sense of humor” as something they find attractive in a man? Because humor is a hard-to-fake sign of intelligence. (In fact, you can predict how many women a man has slept with by how funny he is.)

 

Humor can improve your life

Humor isn’t just an entertaining distraction. It improves many facets of life and we’d be better off with more of it.

Couples who reminisce about shared laughter are happier. In his book Just Kidding: Using Humor Effectively Louis Franzini presents research that salespeople who use humor close more deals.

A fun workplace was more attractive to prospective employees than compensation or opportunities for promotion. Researchers believe that humor can help teams bond, as well as increase the quantity and quality of communication while building trust.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

A host of studies indicates that humor creates positive group effects. Many focus on how humor can increase cohesiveness and act as a lubricant to facilitate more efficient communications, like Bob Petersen’s story team. Researchers have developed a general view that effective humor can increase the quantity and quality of group communications. One reason for that is that humor has also been demonstrated to increase trust.

Humor improves our mood because it makes us think, which interrupts negative emotions. (Jokes can actually mentally disarm us because the brainpower required to process the laughs can take away from critical thinking during an argument.)
People who use humor to cope with stress are healthier.

Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

People who spontaneously use humor to cope with stress have especially healthy immune systems, are 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, experience less pain during dental surgery and live four and a half years longer than average…On the basis of the results, the researchers recommended that people laugh for at least fifteen minutes each day.

What’s interesting — and something we often forget as adults –  is it seems we all may need fun in our lives:

Via Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul:

But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure… There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like the well-documented sleep deficit. 

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You want to laugh? Here are a few of my favorite bits of “error correction” (all NSFW):

-Louis C.K. on turning 40 and children.

-Patton Oswalt on why AA meetings are better than Weight Watchers meetings.

-Eddie Izzard on World War 2.

-Lewis Black on America and milk.

About Eric Barker