Humour is not always a laughing matter

Humour is often regarded as a superficial jab that allows us to understand our daily experiences and relationships with people. If humour is that superficial jab, then jokes and pranks are the syringe that pokes fun at and administers a dose of laughter into our lives. 

Yet if humour is all that trivial and not to be taken seriously, why does it still remain ever so prevalent in our world today, to the extent of dedicating a day like April Fools’ or Joke Day, even creating and sharing memes in the Internet world to celebrate this omnipresent phenomenon? Humour is serious business, and serves us a lot more than just knowing why chickens would cross roads or who is knocking on our doors. 

Humour is a term that was derived from humors, an ancient Greek medicine concept referring to humans’ vital bodily fluids (i.e., blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). It was believed that the relative balance of these humors could account for human health, behaviour and personality, where an excess or a deficiency is likely to result in illness. 

Today, humour is understood mostly as a psychological state eliciting amusement, the ability to appreciate and use it being universal across humankind. 

Despite this universality, humour is also a very nuanced and subjective experience that varies across each and everyone of us, influenced by a complex interplay of factors including age, gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational level, intelligence, upbringing, and even the immediate context wherein humour takes place (e.g., topic of conversation, people involved). Because of this subjectivity, humour is not merely a superficial jab that serves to poke fun at our lives but a double-edged sword that wields both benefits and harm for us. 

Theories of Humour

Research has proposed numerous theories regarding humour and its functions. Of these, three main ones have been of interest:

Relief Theory 

According to relief theory, humour is a mechanism that helps to maintain psychological balance by relieving psychological tension, which is caused by people’s fears and anxieties as they try to manage maladjustments in their lives, or suppressed and unconscious desires.

Superiority Theory

Superiority theory explains that humour is a way for people to subtly declare their superiority to others by taking advantage of others’ misfortunes and shortcomings, in turn deriving for themselves a sense of joy and pleasure (also known as schadenfreude). 

Incongruity Theory

The basic premise of incongruity theory is that humour occurs when one recognizes a mismatch between expectations of how a certain situation should transpire and reality. Related to this is the benign-violation theory, which explains that humour occurs when this mismatch are considered to be trivial, acceptable or unoffensive.

Types of Humour

Extending on the theories of humour and the idea of humour being a double-edged sword, humour can also be understood by examining how it is utilised to serve everyday functions in our well-being. In particular, humour can be conceptualised into: (1) for whom humour is meant to enhance (oneself or one’s social relationships), and (2) the impact of humour (benign and well-intentioned, or detrimental and injurious). This gives four types in total, namely: self-enhancing, affiliative, aggressive (damage others to enhance self) and self-defeating (damage self to enhance social relationships) humour. 

Self-Enhancing Humour

Self-enhancing humour is about being able to take on life with a good-natured attitude and make fun of oneself, one’s circumstances or life in a constructive and harmless manner. 

Affiliative Humour

Affiliative humour is about being able to use humour in a way that helps to forge closer bonds with others without coming at the expense of chastising oneself, and usually revolves around everyday occurrences or experiences that many can easily relate to. 

Aggressive Humour

Aggressive humour is about using humour in a way that allows one to derive pleasure from inflicting potential harm and offence onto others, through sarcasm, put-downs, ridicule, teasing, criticism and the like. A prominent example would be racial or sexual microaggressions. 

Self-Defeating Humour

Self-defeating humour is about using humour in a way that deprecates and berates oneself in order to seek validation and acceptance from others. This can come in the form of being the butt of others’ jokes, or directing self-critical comments about one’s flaws and mishaps. 

Humour is serious business.

What use would understanding what humour is serve us? If it is not obvious enough, humour is serious business not just in the comedy and entertainment industry sense – it is a potent tool that can influence our overall biopsychosocial health. Put another way, it is perhaps because of the power humour holds, that humour has evolved to become an industry of its own. But how exactly does humour benefit and jeopardize? 

Benefits of Humour 

Humour, when used positively in self-enhancing and affiliative ways, can reap a myriad of benefits. Biologically, research has consistently shown that such forms of benign humour has a role in boosting immunity, increasing pain tolerance, lowering blood pressure and reducing cardiovascular disease risk. Psychologically, advantages include higher well-being and self-esteem, improvements in productivity, creativity, problem-solving skills and attention, more mature adjustment and lower stress and depressive symptoms. Socially, beyond improving likability, attractiveness and interpersonal connections, humour can also be effective in creating a light-hearted and less judgmental space to hold difficult conversations surrounding personal or societal issues, and challenges us to approach such sensitive issues more openly and empathetically. 

Harms of Humour 

On the other hand, humour that is aggressive or self-defeating can pose certain dangers. When used inappropriately, humour can divide, destroy and distract. Such forms of maladaptive humour are often linked to higher levels of hostility and aggression (as for aggressive humour), or poorer psychological symptoms, higher likelihood of bullying victimisation, and lower levels of self-esteem and well-being (as for self-defeating humour). Often these would serve as defence mechanisms for us to conceal or suppress uncomfortable, unacceptable feelings, thoughts and beliefs about ourselves or our extenuating circumstances. While these allow for temporary relief from such distressing experiences for ourselves, in the long-run they can wound up hurting our ability to connect, build and attune, particularly in the area of our relationships and our very own needs and values. 

Practicalities of a “Practical Joke”

Knowing that humour is serious business, how then can we humour ourselves and others? What is considered to be “good”, “appropriate” or “practical” humour that will serve us well? Below are some practicalities worth ponderance in our process of cultivating and embracing humour:

1. Understand how you use and appreciate humour.

Which of the four types of humour are you more inclined towards? While there are some whose humour is predominantly a specific type, in reality many of us tend to use a combination of the four types and if that is so for you, the question then would be under what circumstances do you find yourself using a particular type, how often or consistently do you use it, what tools do you use to express humour (e.g., jokes, pranks, puns, exaggeration, memes)? Examine the overall context – whether you are with others vs alone, the nature of your relationship with others (e.g., acquaintances/strangers vs loved ones), the nature of the situation taking place (e.g., informal social events vs formal discussions)… For example, you may use self-affiliative humour when around acquaintances but only during parties and not forum discussions, and self-defeating or aggressive humour when around loved ones most times; when alone you may tend to use self-enhancing humour to get through tough times. By reflecting on the context that contributes to the humour you would use, you would be able to better understand the functions of your humour. 

2. Consider your intentions and the impact your style of humour brings to your life.

When using a particular type of humour in specific contexts, what is your intended purpose? What do you hope to gain? What are the outcomes that follow right after, and in the long-run? Do these outcomes match your intentions? If there seems to be no purpose that you can draw out, consider whether this is an ingrained pattern of behaviour, where this pattern might have stemmed from, and its outcomes. For example, if your pattern of humour is characterized by one of self-defeat, do you use it as a way to appear modest to others, to seek approval and validation from others? If so, perhaps you may feel better about your relationships because you are able to maintain the relationship dynamics or about yourself when others affirm you, but this may not necessarily address the low sense of self-worth underlying your attempts to keep peace. Is this what you want for yourself? 

3. Reflect on what humour means to you, and whether it does at all.

What is humour to you? Is humour a value you stand by, or merely just a band-aid in your first aid kit that you sometimes use to treat wounds? Do you use or appreciate humour at all? These are pertinent questions to ask yourself because they could inform the sort of relationships you have with others (e.g., friendships, romance). The way you use humour can also impact how you relate to your sense of self and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, body sensations, memories etc.) during trying times. 

Many of us may hold the notion that humour is an innate ability gifted to those born with a funny bone, and that there is one single “best type of humour” that only professional comedians can master. Some may even believe that only the neurotypical population is able to appreciate humour, while this is severely limited by the neurodiverse’s cognitive and developmental abilities. In truth, humour is a skill that can be built upon, and is a constant learning process of practice and reflection. Very importantly, there is no “best” or “right” type of humour – it is a human experience that is unique to each of us. 

Even as an avid user who is known to have a decent sense of humour, there are admittedly times when the humour used was in poor taste. It is crucial to recognize humour that is used as a way to connect, build and attune, should be used in good fun for not only ourselves but also for the people around us – this means that when humour ends up hurting and harming, we hold ourselves accountable and make amends.

The key to cultivating your sense of humour is not necessarily through conforming to the mainstream or to perfection, but rather through exploring ways that enable you to find your own form of amusement, joy, laughter, comfort, self-compassion in the most difficult of times and embracing the imperfections, utilizing humour in ways that are still responsible, respectful and empathetic. Ultimately, humour is life and life is humour – it is about knowing what the optimal balance is for you to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. 

To end this article on humour, I would like to tickle your funny bone, dearest reader, with these good old classics*:

Why did the chicken cross the road? 

It didn’t – it chickened out. 

How many counsellors/psychologists will it take to get the chicken to cross the road?

Just one, so long as the chicken is raw (emotionally) and is motivated to move and cross the road.

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Your client, with a doorknob confession to make–

I understand that this is important to you, but let’s hold this for discussion during our next session instead. 

*Note: Any resemblance of the situations and involved parties above to real persons, is seriously and purely coincidental.

Written by Esis Quek

Assistant Psychologist by day and The Other Clinic’s resident clinic clown by night.

To meet with a professional psychologist or counsellor, call The Other Clinic at 8809 0659 or email us


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