Humor Can Help Us Live Better Lives

Is laughter truly the best medicine? Can humor help us achieve our goals?

A new study examines how — and when — humor helps people reach their goals.

The study, by researchers Caleb Warren, an assistant professor of marketing in the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, Adam Barsky of the University of Melbourne, and A. Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, breaks people’s goals into three broad categories:

  1. Hedonic goals (maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain),
  2. Utilitarian goals (optimizing long-term well-being) and
  3. Social goals (getting along with others).

The researchers argue that humor appreciation — laughter and amusement — helps people feel better by making positive experiences, such as watching a movie or dining at a restaurant, more pleasant. It also makes negative experiences, such as going to the dentist or waiting in line, less unpleasant.

Sharing a laugh also can help people bond and get along better with one another, the researchers note.

But humor appreciation does not always improve utilitarian outcomes, such as decision-making or health.

For example, laughing tends to make people more creative — but also more careless. Similarly, watching a funny movie may help someone recover from emotional ailments, such as depression or an anxiety disorder, but there is little evidence that humor will help with cancer or even a common cold, the researchers noted.

Similarly, comedy production — trying to make others laugh — sometimes helps people reach their goals, but gets in the way at other times.

For example, cracking a joke can help capture attention, but it also can make a message seem less important, the researchers warn.

One notable conclusion from the study is that the effects of comedy production depend on the type of joke people tell, as well as whether the joke actually makes an audience laugh.

Teasing and telling insulting jokes are less likely to help people cope with loss or navigate an awkward social interaction than joking about the weather or creating an amusing pun.

But even jokes about the weather and puns won’t help if no one laughs, the researchers conclude.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Source: The University of Arizona