In the year 2000, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi were authors of an influential article proposing a new focus in the field of psychology: the positive psychology movement. Since that time, researchers have begun to explore the positive aspects or strengths of life such as satisfaction, optimism, happiness, and other positive emotions. Included in this repertoire of constructive attributes is the sense of humor. Humor can simply be described as the quality of being funny, laughable, amusing, or comic. However, how humor is utilized, that is sense of humor, is of main interest in exercise and sport psychology because of humor’s ability to serve as a powerful, robust coping mechanism, cohesion enhancer, and communication technique. Humor has also shown to have positive benefits in many other domains, such as therapy, marriage, job satisfaction, education, leadership, and health. People who use humor are usually better able to successfully build relationships and tend to be more popular.
Over the years, several theories of humor have been proposed. Four of these theories are briefly mentioned here. The release theory proposed by Sigmund Freud stated that humor is used as a coping mechanism to release sexual or aggressive tensions. Many of the other humor theories attempt to explain why humor is found in various circumstances. The incongruity theory states that humor is found in situations where a particular action or outcome is expected, yet an unexpected action or outcome occurs. In other words, the element of surprise plays a role in humorous events. The superiority theory of humor states that persons feel sudden glory over another when the other person is the target of a joke. Finally, the benign violation theory states that humor is found when norms or expected behaviors are violated (similar to incongruity theory) without any serious or threatening consequences.
There are numerous forms or types of humor— sarcastic, self-deprecating, hyperbolic, parodic, ironic, and situational—to name just a few. Each may have various effects on the sender and receiver. In other words, although many believe humor has several positive mental and physical benefits, when used differently humor may serve to increase stress, humiliate, or decrease motivation. Used in a positive manner, however, humor may be an effective cognitive strategy (particularly in dealing with stressful situations) and help people to reassess life situations by allowing them to see the problem more realistically—providing psychological distance from the situation. Also, humor may be categorized as reactive or productive. Reactive humor is the ability to accurately appreciate and respond to humorous events (i.e., understand, laugh). Productive humor represents the capacity to devise, create, or use humor in situations not initially seen as humorous.
The sense of humor may be considered to have trait and state components. Measurement instruments have been developed to measure these various aspects of humor, such as the Humor Perceptiveness Test, Coping Humor Scale, Humor Styles Questionnaire, Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale, Sense of Humor Questionnaire 6, Sense of Humor Scale, and Situational Humor Response Questionnaire. These scales measure facets of the sense of humor: the ability to appreciate various types of humor, humor creativity, use of humor to cope, styles of humor, and the relationship of humor to certain personality characteristics.
As early as the 1960s, studies were conducted on the effects of humor on teaching. Humor has been found to assist in information recall and is valued by both the teachers and students. Teachers who use appropriate humor usually receive higher teaching evaluations, are seen as more approachable, and are better able to establish rapport with students. Interestingly, although coaching is seen by many as similar to teaching, very few studies have been conducted on the use of humor by coaches. Also, there are very few studies of the use of humor in sport and exercise in general. The few studies found in coaching indicated head coaches who use appropriate humor were more liked by their players—particularly by female athletes. Also, coaches who use humor were found to be perceived as having higher abilities and evaluated more positively.
Future investigations of the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism in sport and exercise may provide valuable insight to this often discussed, yet not fully understood behavioral characteristic. How humor may be used by leaders and participants to assist in adhering to exercise programs would significantly impact the fitness and medical industries. Discussions of the use of humor by teammates and coaches to enhance team relationships, cohesion, enjoyment, or satisfaction, as well as for coping with sport circumstances, would be valuable additions to the literature.
- Burke, K. L., Peterson, D., & Nix, C. L. (1995). The effects of the coaches’ use of humor on female volleyball players’ evaluation of their coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18, 83–90.
- Grisaffe, C., Blom, L. C., & Burke, K. L. (2003). The effects of head and assistant coaches’ use of humor on collegiate soccer players’ evaluation of their coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26, 103–108.
- Hurley, M. H., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Ruch, W. (Ed.). (1998). The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.