We begin today’s Weekend Homework Assignment with a short history of humor! Read it for context on our exploration of its role in human relationships, and to gain a deeper understanding not only of our approach to humor, but of your own.

Historically, people have thought about humor a lot. Historical thought about humor in social interactions has been characterized by several major theories. The first, superiority theory, mostly belonged to Plato, Hobbes, and Aristotle, and explored the comic mechanisms of jokes whose punch-lines leave us feeling “better than” others. (Hmmm).

Here’s a joke that fits the bill (it won first place with the highest number of up-votes in a year-long project called LaughLab):

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

Chronologically following superiority theory came Kant’s incongruity theory, postulating that jokes are funny because they reveal inconsistencies between our assumptions and reality. This idea was made popular through the support of other famous people who think a lot, like Hegel, Schopenhauer, and our favorite scientist/philosopher, Sigmund Freud!

Here’s an example of incongruity from LaughLab: 

An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote:
“Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”
The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”
“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.” 

Freud added to this line of thinking with his own philosophical musings on relief theory, which basically asserts that humor’s primary function is to release tension. We all know how that feels. When they were all put together, these theories sired our modern perspective on funny-ness. 

To summarize, according to these widely accepted theories, jokes are funny when they make us feel:

  • better than another person or group
  • that our assumptions/reflexive judgments can “make an ass out of you and me” 
  • a welcome sense of relief in a stressful situation 

Here’s your Weekend Homework Assignment: 

Think about the ways in which you’ve experienced humor in your life. Does one of these theories resonate with you more than the rest? Is this because of personal experience? Is it?

How did the people you grew up with (your parents, other family members, friends of all ages) [try to] make jokes? What were some of your favorite aspects of each one’s sense of humor? What were some of your least favorite? What set their sense of humor apart from the rest?

What do you like about your partner’s sense of humor? What do you dislike about it? What sets it apart?

How about your own?

In any situation, humor may bring in a different perspective. It can take us away from the heat of the moment, and, in a sense, perfectly embody mindfulness by providing a self-aware suggestion. How?

For example, in a fight, humor can reveal a third perspective, and though this perspective might not be, “Wow, this situation is totally funny and not at all painful,” it very well may be, “I love you” or “Let’s make peace.”

If introduced in the right way, a joke can be an invitation to laugh together. To share a positive moment. The joke is a signal. It says, “Hey – we’re still on the same team.” It says, “Our team can still have fun!” It says, “Our relationship is so much more important to me than this silly fight.” 

So… what do you feel constitutes “the right way?” Look forward to the Gottman perspective on Monday!


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Weekend Homework Assignment: Humor

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.