Does Humor Threaten Self-Esteem?
According to one academic definition, something is funny when people recognize it as funny, whether or not it generates laughter, or makes other people feel amused. But, on the whole, laughing is not a reliable indicator of whether or not something is funny. We all understand this. Laughter is an integral part of human nature; we actually need it in order to be happy, and even more, to find humor in the things that happen to us every day. So, when we look at funny things, we usually laugh at them because–at least in our little minds–it confirms that the situation was at least temporarily funny.
In much the same way, however, it can be problematic to use humor as an indicator of the state of reality. Jokes are intended to be both playful and ironic. When we laugh at a joke, we are enjoying an ironic reaction to the situation at hand. But when this kind of reaction is endorsed by other people and reinforced in real-life examples, we are seeing the product of a social learning system that produces and reinforces funnyness as the means of humorization.
If we consider the two major forms of social humor–jokes and one-liners–we will see that in some cases, the two forms do not work well together. Jokes are funny things that entertain. They are designed to make us laugh. A good joke is one that, through some unconscious mechanism, causes us to be receptive and entertained by the punch line; the one-liners are designed to be merely intriguing or suggestive.
In other cases, however, the joke and the one-liner do make sense together. Consider funny things like “you’re as funny as a tree.” The statement is funny on its own, but the subsequent expression of laughter is more than accidental. The entire act of sharing the laughter is an example of social learning. We learn that sharing is more enjoyable than observing.
Conversely, it is almost impossible to observe the use of humor without also having been receptive to some degree in social settings. We see and experience humor whenever someone says to us, “It’s not funny,” or when someone else says, “You shouldn’t laugh like that.” The ability to respond with “It’s not funny” or “You shouldn’t laugh that way” is part of human social etiquette. The ability to produce and enjoy humor is a powerful tool for social interaction. So then, why is there so much opposition to humor?
The difficulty may be found in the fact that those who oppose humor and the enjoyment of it do so from a sense of seriousness or of negativity. The fact that we find humor important is a point in its own right. We do not often associate humor with feelings other than plain joy. But the opposition to humor is based on fear of losing control or feeling inferior.