What is Humor?

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Hurley, M. H., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  4. Ruch, W. (Ed.). (1998). The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  5. Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.


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