By Jeff Van Pelt
“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most – to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.”
― Audrey Hepburn
“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
― Robert Frost
“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Early in Kennedy’s presidency, a reporter asked him whether he would recommend the job of president to others. Kennedy replied, “No … at least not for a while.” Kennedy was master of the quick quip, responding to the moment.
President Reagan was a master at using humor strategically. He frequently told jokes that poked fun at himself, knowing that they were effective at disarming his critics. Having been criticized for napping during the day, Reagan told the press, “I’ve given my aides instructions that if trouble breaks out in any of the world’s hot spots they should wake me up immediately – even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”
Reagan and Kennedy were two of the more popular presidents in recent history, and it was their positive sense of humor, in no small part, that endeared them to people. Nixon, in contrast, had a cynical and defensive sense of humor, when he showed one at all. And we know how popular he was. (I won’t go into more recent politicians for obvious reasons.)
A positive sense of humor wins people over. It charms and creates a feeling of togetherness. People who possess that skill are sought after in social situations. At work they are in demand to serve on teams and committees because of their positive effect on people.
A negative, derisive sense of humor, while it might get laughs, does not win friends or lift people’s moods. It can do just the opposite.
Tips for improving one’s sense of humor
If you are interested in improving the way you use humor, and developing a more positive sense of humor, here are some suggestions:
Learn the difference between positive and negative humor
The first is inclusive. It brings people together, makes them feel good, and focuses on the universal human experience. One of the most endearing types of humor is a joke that pokes fun at oneself, such as the anecdote above about Ronald Reagan.
Positive humor does not denigrate others (except perhaps for some in government and on the news who are deserving of denigration). It does not poke fun at racial, ethnic, sexual or other groupings of people.
Mark Twain said, “Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.” The same could be said of a positive sense of humor.
You don’t have to tell elaborate stories or knee-slappers in order to be funny. Look at the example of President Kennedy. Often, the best humor is subtle and gets nothing more than a knowing smile.
Negative humor, on the other hand, is exclusive and comes at someone else’s expense. It separates people into us and them. It uses stereotypes and lacks an awareness or concern for the feelings of others.
Negative humor has, unfortunately, proliferated on the Internet. You may know someone who is mild-mannered in person but metamorphoses into someone else on social media. This is especially common when people use pseudonymous or anonymous identities on Facebook and other social media. But it happens all too frequently under real identities too because we don’t see the effects it has on others. The dynamics of road rage are similar.
Keep a humor journal
A “humor journal” is a valuable tool for improving your sense of humor. Write down jokes, stories and situations of all kinds that amuse you. You might find ideas from your reading, memes, stand-up comedians, television shows or movies. You can even google “humor,” “jokes,” and related terms and find a wealth of material on the Internet.
The purpose of a humor journal is not for you to memorize jokes and repeat them. It is to immerse yourself in humor, to find out what kinds of things you find funny, and to absorb the material into your consciousness. Then you are able to discover and enrich your own sense of humor. You might borrow some of the mechanics or techniques from other sources, but you will supply your own specifics.
Examine the anatomy (or mechanics) of a joke
Knowing some of the different types of jokes can help you be more creative in coming up with positive jokes of your own. Here are a few:
Exaggeration: Such things as size, numbers, facts, feelings and events are so overstated that they become absurd. Example: Two elderly gentlemen were sitting in the living room enjoying friendly conversation. One asked, “Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?” Fred replied, “Outstanding. They taught us the latest techniques for improving your memory, such as association and visualization.” John asked the name of the clinic. Fred went blank. He thought and thought but couldn’t remember. Then a smile came across his face. “What do you call that flower with a long stem and thorns?” “Do you mean a rose?” John asked. “Yes, that’s it!” Fred called to his wife, “Hey Rose, what was the name of that memory clinic?”
Incongruity: Two ideas are associated with each other in an irrational way. Example: Yogi Berra is reported to have said of a restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Reversal: The audience is tricked by a switch in viewpoint. Example: In a hot, crowded department store, two small children, Billy and Kathy, were eating ice cream cones. While going up an escalator, their ice cream cones melting, Kathy was crowded against the back of a woman wearing an expensive mink coat. “Watch out Kathy!” Billy said, “You’re getting fur all over your ice cream.”
Implication: This device makes a point without actually stating it. The listener has to make the connection. Example: Winston Churchill retired from government in 1955, but he would come back to the House of Commons from time to time to observe. One day, when he was well into his eighties, he dropped into the House and was being helped to his seat by two aides who whispered behind his back: “The old fellow’s getting pretty feeble.” “I hear he’s becoming a bit soft in the head.” “Yes, I hear he’s completely dotty.” As Churchill eased into his seat, he turned to the men and said quietly, “Yes, and they also say that he’s getting hard of hearing.”
Pun: Lastly, a pun is a play on words, using a word that can have multiple meanings in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings. Example: A man was driving in the country when a rabbit hopped in front of him so suddenly that he didn’t have time to stop. He ran over it. He stopped and got out, but it lay motionless, apparently dead. A woman stopped, and seeing the dead rabbit pulled a spray can from her purse and sprayed the rabbit. Suddenly the rabbit got up, hopped a few feet, waved at them, hopped a few more feet and waved again, then was off into the woods. The dumbfounded man grabbed the can and read the label: “Hare spray. Restores life to dead hare. Adds bounce and wave.”
The Golden Rule of positive humor
You can forget all of the above and still be liked for your sense of humor if you remember this: Use humor to lift the mood of the people around you, not to put someone down.
(Disclaimer: I’m not perfect. I don’t always follow the advice in this article, but I’m trying.)
Jeff Van Pelt is from Virginia, USA. He earned his masters degree in applied social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.