How Your Sense of Humor Works

What is a sense of humor? (And why is everyone so stressed out?)

Your sense of humor reveals who you are when the going gets tough.

Stress is a basic part of life. We are used to thinking of it as a negative, with terrible health consequences. In other words we think of it as something that causes problems. And it does, of course. But it can be a positive force given the right circumstances. For instance I just watched the World Series and the players were under enormous pressure, but they reported that they didn’t mind the stress, that in fact they loved it

The human psyche is amazingly sensitive and complex. We have the ability to evaluate and experience stress without even thinking about it, which is pretty amazing (when you think about it!) but this unconscious capacity has evolved into one of the great dilemmas of modern life. It helped us survive some pretty rough going in our caveman days. It was and still is a remarkable survival tool. We use it all the time, even when we don’t need it (which is most of the time), even when it causes more problems than it solves.

This once-essential survival tool has turned on us. Stress is a good thing when it helps us evaluate threats appropriately. It’s bad when it misinterprets, misidentifies and exaggerates threats. The magnitude of this problem is in evidence everywhere (anyone who has witnessed road rage knows what I am talking about).

Sense of humor is an essential way of playing with and disarming our unconscious threat assessment arsenals. We call on many of the same inner resources that are used to assess threats when we encounter something humorous—but we rely on the unconscious far more than the conscious mind.

Neuroscience has shown that the unconscious mind processes far more information far faster than the conscious mind. The conscious mind—the amazing tool we use to understand ourselves and the world around us—can only process between 16 and 50 bits of information per second. At the same time, the unconscious mind deals with about 11 million bits per second. (See Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon Books 2012))

Your sense of humor is powered by a set of unconscious cognitive operations. It is a highly evolved inner psychological resource for dealing with stress. It affects many of the same cognitive triggers that are set off by perceived threats. Your sense of humor imparts a sense of well being. It makes you feel like your mind is working on your behalf, whereas the threatened mind makes you feel like you have to work for it.

Your sense of humor puts you in charge. It can turn unproductive stress into a perspective of resilience. Stress tends to narrow your focus, your sense of humor broadens it. Your sense of humor is a tool of perception. It is not an emotion. How you perceive the world around you determines your emotional experience: perception is the realm of cause, your emotions are an effect. (Yes we all feel like a bad mood “causes” us to feel bad: but this is simply piling effect on effect: a symptom of the narrow focus that bad moods bring. Sense of humor is a broad perspective that welcomes possibilities, bad moods are a symptom of being in a stuck place perceiving limited possibilities).

Your sense of humor is about the real you: Most people recognize that it is hard, at times nearly impossible, to laugh deeply at something that you don’t find funny. Our sense of humor is an indicator of deep, unconscious authenticity.

This is why a person’s sense of humor is so central to personal chemistry in relationships. It is hard to have a successful relationship without a sense of humor. As many polls have shown: it’s what everyone is looking for in a mate. Why? Is it because we want someone to tell us jokes all the time? Of course not. It’s because we know that when we are under stress, when the going gets tough, we need to call on that vital inner resource of resilience and authenticity.

Tell me what makes you laugh and I will tell you who you are. – Pagnol


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