Does researching and writing about humor kills all the fun (and makes you depressed)?

Does researching and writing about humor kills all the fun (and makes you depressed)?

Let me give it to you straight up: no, it does not –– but it is more complicated than that…

I usually start my lectures and workshops by telling audience that I will share with them theories and research from the psychology of humor, show examples, and conduct interactive exercises and discussion related to the particular topic of the presentation (e.g. humor and cross-cultural interactions or leadership). I also say that “I will make a humble attempt to make them laugh, although researching and writing about humor doesn’t necessarily make one a comedian”. It elicits some laughter, usually, but I also say it for a reason:

First, whenever there is a word “humor” in the title of a presentation or a lecture, many expect that it will be something like a stand-up comedy with series of jokes and jokes only, so it is good to set their expectations straight (read: lower their expectations – I am no stand-up comedian after all).

Second, E. B. White once famously said that “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog – few people are interested and the patient dies in the end”. And, most people do think that overanalyzing humor removes all the fun and this notion seems to resonate well with audiences. Saying what they might already be thinking and letting the audience know that I am aware of it, too, is be putting us on the same team.

Third, by saying that “researching humor didn’t make me a comedian”, I am giving myself an alibi for those moments when I do get carried away with the serious analysis, forget about the funny examples and the frog has its NDE[1].

But, back to the question at hand: does studying humor – its social functions, cognitive mechanisms that go into appreciating jokes, or brain patters related to it, etc. – does “knowing” all this, really kills all the fun for those who investigate it?

It is a legitimate question: does it no make you see a research question in every laughter, an observation in every smile, an experiment subject in every person telling a joke?  To be honest, I have never really asked myself this question before, until one person from audience recently confronted me with it. She said that she was a researcher, too, and she was driven by the “unknown” in science, and that whenever she started working with a subject and begun to understand it, she was losing some of the initial motivation and exhilaration. Therefore, she would not chose humor as a subject of study, because she would be afraid to lose all the excitement attached to it.

She also added that “it’s a widely known fact that many comedians suffer from depression” and asked whether I am not afraid to become depressed “when I cannot laugh and enjoy humor anymore [because of studying it]”.

To begin with, I replied that I can think of a dozen other reasons myself and anyone else can get depressed (year 2016 alone being one good reason). And, then there is therapy (and Xanax).

On a more serious note, however, analyzing humor when doing research or writing an article is entirely different from analyzing or explaining a situational joke when interacting with humans. And, I think it was this latter kind of analysis that E.B. White referred to as being deadly for the frog. constantly! And believe, in the same way that we psychologists do not go around and analyze people every wake minute of the day, humor scholars do not analyze every instance of humor they observe or participate in.



Some other reflections and reasons, which I can summon from personal experience, about why studying humor does not kill the fun:

Think of musicians: many can tell you structure of every song, its rhythm, harmony of the sounds in a chord and sometimes even bother to explain why a particular piece is good. I am sure, however, that not only can they tell a great masterpiece, but also surely enjoy listening to it a lot. Musicians are probably the people who listen to music most, too.

Humor, to continue the musical metaphor, is similar to music in that it is a very creative area of human activity. Both in terms of new comedians and genres constantly emerging, but also, and even more so, when it comes to our social interactions: new things to laugh at, whole themes, patters and spontaneous situations emerge all the time – and with them, humor is evolving and changing its functions. Psychology of humor is still a young discipline of a relatively young science: psychology. We lack terms and theory to describe even a fraction of the entirety of the humor as phenomenon and we are far from understanding its every aspect.

This is especially true for humor in social interactions – and it is there where most of it happens. And, as noted before, it is an entirely different thing to study humor: observe it and analyze it from a distance, but once you are taking a part in a humorous situation it is very hard not to be taken along by it and remain an objective observer.

Humor is engraved in our deepest nature. Animals and our evolutionary ancestors were no strangers to humor or interaction forms resembling humor (e.g. rough and tumble play). Although we may not all be born with genetic predisposition to grasp particle physics, all of us[2] are evolutionary rooted to create, understand and appreciate humor – different kinds of it and to different degrees, sure, but it is in our genes.

Finally, all I can say is that the more I study humor, the more I enjoy and appreciate it. The more I seek it.

So, go ahead and read more on this blog and learn about the psychology of humor – I can promise you no side effects!


[1] I reckon that most of you are familiar with Netflix and the “O.A.” series by now, but for those who are not: NDE stands for near death experience.

[2] There are, of course, certain conditions that may have genetic background and that can hinder one’s ability to perceive humor, e.g. autism in some cases.

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