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No Laughing's the Matter (Self-Test)

Humor is a genuine gauge of your intelligence, life purpose, and longevity.

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This distinguished professor of gerontology boldly asks old ladies to share their favorite dirty jokes. Why? Humor is a quick gauge of intelligence, life purpose, and whether life will be long or just seem that way. See how you can lighten up with Dr. Thorson’s Humor Scale.

This article appeared in our April 2004 issue.

On her deathbed, my mother spent her last days busy with visits from friends and relatives. In the evenings, though, when it was just the two of us, she liked me to read to her. I had brought a biography of the Windsors, a thick book filled with sex scandals and other gossipy tidbits about the royal family that she really enjoyed. One evening, nearing the end, she asked what page I was on.

“Page 87,” I said.

“Read faster,” she replied.

This from an 84-year-old woman who sensed that she had only a few days left. Her friend Viola, who shared her sensibility, once told me, “I’m getting so old, I won’t buy green bananas.”

These women used humor as a coping mechanism, and their ability to laugh at the world and its absurdities - reflects a particularly healthy approach to life. People who adapt by using humor minimize their problems and put them in perspective, knowing that a hundred years from now, nobody — including them — will care. Such people are also likely to be healthier and live longer. Humor pays off.

If you smiled, laughed, or simply recognized either of these examples as humorous, we might say you are an appreciator. Those who appreciate humor don’t necessarily seek it out (although some of us turn to the funnies first when reading the newspaper), nor do they avoid humor or humorous people. People low in humor appreciation may say things like, “Are you trying to be funny?” To which the best response might be, “No, I’m not trying to be funny — I am funny. Are you trying to be hostile?” People high in humor appreciation get the joke. People low in this trait may not even recognize that there is a joke.

These two categories easily go hand in hand: Those who use humor to cope are also those who appreciate it. When Norman Cousins, the late editor of the Saturday Review, was diagnosed with a disabling and potentially fatal collagen disease, instead of heading to the Mayo Clinic, he rented a bunch of films by Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, and literally laughed himself back to health.

Whether appreciators must also be copers isn’t important. There are millions of happy, optimistic people who enjoy humor but don’t necessarily turn to it first when confronted with troubles. This may depend on the severity of the trouble. It is perfectly human (and healthy) to grieve when we lose a loved one. No one is healthier by laughing it off We aren’t expected to find consolation in humor, at least at first. But it is permissible to laugh at more trivial things.

Beyond Sitcoms

My colleagues and I have studied humor for more than a decade. We wanted to know more about how older people cope with life. We all know people who use humor in the face of loss — of beauty, strength, height, immune response, sexual function, income, friends, and family. Our colleague Leonard Poon at the University of Georgia, for example, found in his studies of centenarians — people who have lived a hundred years or more — that most take life’s trials in stride. “I hang my troubles on the tree outside when I go in the house,” as one gentleman put it.

It’s no secret that many older people have a keen wit. This may be something that develops in maturity, but may also be a lifelong perspective on the world. Our research indicates that people at any age who score higher in sense of humor are less likely to be depressed and have a higher sense of purpose in life. Some of our as-yet unpublished data also indicates a strong correlation between sense of humor and intelligence. Other researchers have found those high in sense of humor to have a better ability to generate hormones that have a protective effect, or even to live longer.

Laughter as Lubricant

The National Council on the Aging once invited me to a consultation on programming for seniors. Twenty-one of us spent three days brainstorming in a retreat center. Seven of us had backgrounds in adult education, seven in leisure and recreation studies, the remainder in social work.

During the discussion, someone referred to people served by social workers as “clients.” Apparently this was a year when social workers had banned the term. One of the social work professors interjected coldly, “Who said ‘clients’?”

Absolute silence. Finally, I said, “Well, when we do find him, we’ll throttle the bastard!”

Everyone broke up laughing. The tension melted away and we bonded, working together productively from then on. When we saw the absurdity of getting worked up over a term that one group had forbidden, it was no longer a threat.

What had happened? I had used humor as a social lubricant to change the atmosphere from hostility into playfulness. Social humor often makes us more comfortable, particularly if it is generous rather than self-serving. Those telling a joke or funny story will often see others in the group gather around and smile, even before anything funny is said. People appreciate a break in the boredom. The creator of humor can also act as a facilitator.

What about hostile humor? If a common enemy is attacked, humor can help people to bond. A joke in occupied Norway during World War II: A man hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find the angel of death. The man says, “Thank God! We were afraid it was the Gestapo!”

But what about mean-spirited humor? We’ve all been ridiculed. Being the butt of a joke is no fun. Sometimes humor can be used to bully others. Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant speaks of humor on two levels. At the higher level within his categorization of defense mechanisms is coping humor, the most elegant defense: One recognizes a life problem and lessens it by laughing at it. But lower-level humor can be downright nasty. Moe poking Curly in the eye might be funny in a movie, or we might laugh when Don Rickles puts someone down in his nightclub routine, but such humor can hardly be thought admirable.

The Courage to Be Silly

Here we confront a difficulty. Our research has shown a strong correlation between humor creativity and performance and the personality trait of aggression. The person willing to stick his neck out and attempt to be funny has a kind of courage. But one need not be a performer to be a creator.

Are you entertained by your own thoughts? Do you think up amusing things to say, jokes, funny situations, things to amuse your friends? If you never share them, if you’re reticent or shy, you might be the world’s best gag writer, but the world will never know it. You’ve got to let it out of the bottle. We have a hard time assessing humor creativity without also looking at performance, which admittedly takes boldness. No one knows who the class clown is until he voices his wisecracks.

In 10 years of reading to third graders on Thursday afternoons, I’ve been persuaded that our society values humor creativity and performance. The kid who makes other kids laugh is admired and rewarded, at least by the other kids. The education system, however, typically tries to beat the creativity out of him, or at least limits his parameters of performance.

Note that I said his. The class clown is hardly ever a girl. Maybe we socialize girls into conforming to the rules. It takes some aggression to blurt out the funny thing that has just come to mind, and we tell little girls not to be aggressive. So, the class clown is smart, but also bold, willing to walk closer to the edge.

But what if he torments the other kids, picks on the weak ones, makes a joke at the expense of the fat kid or the gawky kid or the slow kid? While we admire the creative and entertaining person, we despise the bully. It’s not for nothing that J. K. Rowling makes the despicable Draco Malfoy a wisecracker. Everyone reading the Harry Potter books can identify with the victim of the mean kid with the smart mouth. It’s the role of adults to protect children, and calling names can hurt worse than sticks or stones. It doesn’t help to tell the bully that such behavior isn’t nice. He knows it’s not nice: That’s why he’s doing it. He has to learn limits, to bottle it up.

Are there exceptions? Is it okay to be mean and funny if no one gets hurt?

One day, faculty members in my department went to the funeral for the aunt of one of our colleagues. She had died alone and childless, at a great age but with few friends. Everyone there — six colleagues and five relatives — sat in alternate chairs to attempt to fill the space. None of the faculty had known the dearly departed, nor did the rent-a-priest who had clearly fortified himself with a bit too much sacramental wine beforehand.

During the service, the priest was preoccupied with getting his Hail Mary out the right way, and had to start over several times. That wasn’t the only misstep. The funeral became a comedy of errors, worthy of a skit on the David Letterman show. Some of us almost began to cry, not from sadness but from the strain of suppressing laughter.

Afterward, as we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw a tiny ancient lady hobbling along the sidewalk. She couldn’t hear me through the closed car window, nor was she even aware of us. In a loud voice, I said to my companions, “You’re next!”

The car exploded with laughter — awkward laughter we had bottled up. Humor was again a social lubricant, bonding and relieving us of the awkwardness of the funeral. It didn’t hurt the elderly lady who was oblivious to us, so no one was victimized. Sometimes, however, there is a line that should not be crossed. I learned this one day while singing in a Christmas concert in a large auditorium.

I was seated in the adult choir, behind the children’s choir. Just before the soloist was to perform, I leaned forward and whispered to the two 12-year-old girls in front of me, “Now, girls, during Mr. Hansen’s solo the spotlight shows not only him but the two of you. There are twenty-seven hundred people in the Orpheum Theater looking directly at you. So it would be very rude if you were to make faces during his performance.”

This thought, which had not crossed their minds, naturally tickled them. Then the house lights dimmed, and they and Mr. Hansen were in the spotlight. When they realized that I had set them up, they were furious. Meanwhile, they had to sit there, observed by their parents, grandparents, and neighbors, looking sweet while trying not to explode. They attacked me as Mr. Hansen took his bows: “That was a mean thing to do to us!”

Yes, it was, and I promised myself not to do it again. The difference between the post-funeral wisecrack and the concert setup was that there were victims, people who were mad, not glad. What is unique about humor is that it is free, healthy, and delicious. Or at least it should be.

Self-Test

Lighten Up on Dr. Thorson's Humor Scale

Do you step back and laugh at life's absurdities? Or do you wring your hands, find gloom and doom everywhere, and conclude that our world is awful?

You'll be healthier if you lighten up. Our research has shown that those who score high on a multidimensional sense of humor scale have lower levels of depression and higher levels of purpose than those who score low in humor.

You don't have to be the author of the joke to appreciate it, nor do you have to laugh out loud. How much you laugh isn't a good measure of your sense of humor. Soldiers going into battle, for example, respond to the least little thing with gales of nervous laughter. You can laugh inwardly, and some types of humor, such as dry wit, demand a wry smile rather than a laugh.

Some people are better than others at laughing things off, or at least smiling at the ridiculous, and research indicates that those blessed with a funny bone may actually live longer.

Take the following test to see how you use humor. On each item, give yourself:

1 point if you strongly disagree with the statement

2 points if you mildly disagree

3 points if you mildly agree

4 points if you strongly agree

  1. I often crack people up with the things I say.
  2. Sometimes I think up jokes or funny stories.
  3. My friends regard me as something of a wit.
  4. People look to me to say amusing things.
  5. Uses of humor help me adapt to many situations.
  6. Humor helps me cope.
  7. Using humor is a great way of adapting.
  8. Uses of wit or humor help me master difficult situations.
  9. I can ease a tense situation by saying something funny.
  10. Things really do go better with humor.
  11. I'm comfortable when those around me are cracking jokes.
  12. Humor can defuse an explosive situation.
  13. I like a good joke.
  14. I admire people who generate humor.
  15. I generally have a happy outlook on life.
  16. I have laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes.

Your Creativity and Performance Score

Statements 1 through 4 have to do with humor creativity and performance. If your total score for these items is 15 or 16, you're probably the life of the party. But you don't have to be a wild and crazy guy to be creative. Maybe you think of the thing that will crack up the group, but you're reluctant to say it. Or you think of the right response 10 minutes too late. The point is, you do think of it. You may have a subtler or quieter wit, and that's all right. If you scored 6 or less on these first four items, though, maybe you'd be happier if you opened up a little. Nobody wants to cultivate a reputation for being dull.

Your Coping Score

Items 5 through 8 deal with coping. It's important to realize that you don't have to have the weight of the world on your shoulders in order to use coping humor. We all face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And even if you're living a glorious life, you know that none of us gets out of this alive. So, having to cope might be situational, but it may also just be one of the good habits that prevent us from taking ourselves — or our lives — too seriously.

Our research indicates that women tend to score higher on the coping factor. This may seem paradoxical, as others' research has shown women on average to be higher in depression, and coping humor is an antidote to depression. Either women are better able to admit vulnerability, or maybe they just have more to cope with. Scores of 13 to 16 indicate that you can laugh off in a healthy way much that might otherwise vex you. Scores of 8 to 12 suggest that you can often smile and go on. Scores of 4 to 7 may mean that you would be healthier if you laughed off some of your stressors.

Your Facilitation Score

If you scored 14, 15, or 16 on Statements 9 through 12, you're a facilitator. People mean so much to you that you're willing to go out on a limb to ease their discomfort. You know that your coworkers are more productive when they're happy, and you will go out of your way to try to cheer things up. Scores of 10 to 13 on these items don't necessarily mean that you let other people stew; perhaps the situation demands some tension. If your scores on these items are low, though, you might study ways to inject humor into a situation.

Your Appreciation Score

The last four items deal with appreciating humor. If you scored very low on questions 4 through 8, you might find that comedians really bug you. Do you think people don't take things seriously enough? Perhaps you're right.

Or maybe you should take things less seriously. Read the comics before you read the obits.

If, however, you can see hilarity in circumstances that others find mundane or distasteful, then perhaps you are blessed. Your optimism and playfulness go along with your rich appreciation of fun and funny people. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet. In our work with a longer (25-item) multidimensional sense of humor scale, we have found that situational variables are important in total sense of humor score. Combining the factors above, the sum may be dependent on who one is and where one is in life. Young males, for instance, tend to score fairly high on creativity and performance, probably because their peers value being funny. Older people, on the other hand, score fairly low on these items. There may be a cohort effect here: Young people were not expected to be so demonstrative when these subjects were young. Or they may have found quiet appreciation of others' humor more valuable than being the class clown.

Both older people and women tend to score high on the coping items. This may be a matter of their peers' styles or expectations. Or they may use less humor in public and more within the in-group. They are facilitators, who enforce group norms using humor, or they may be those who ease tension by making light of what might otherwise be seen as threatening. Most psychologists agree that those who cope by using humor are healthier mentally, and perhaps physically and spiritually.

People who appreciate humor don't have to use it to cope or as a social lubricant, nor do they have to be gag writers. They may just smile at life. We find, though, that those who appreciate humor also use it as a coping mechanism. And one has to have appreciation before one can learn to create. Facilitation often depends on creation and performance.

So, total your four scores. The maximum score is 64. If you're near it, you let your sense of humor serve you, improving your quality of life. If your total score is between 40 and 50, you use humor sometimes, but perhaps you could learn to let yourself go and enjoy more variety.

Did you score between 20 and 30? Well, you poor old gloomy thing. Less than 20? You need to make an effort to look on the bright side. Life has greater potential if you can loosen up and enjoy it. You don't have to laugh out loud. Somebody might hear you. Just mellow out a bit. Pull my finger. — J.A.T.


James A. Thorson, Ed.D., is the Jacob Isaacson Distinguished Professor of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale has been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, and has been translated into 16 languages.


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