How to Improve Your Sense of Humor and Why You Should

Imagine someone gives you a box of tacks, a candle, and some matches and tells you to stick the candle to a cork board in such a way that the candle doesn't drip wax onto the floor below. Can you do it? That might just depend on whether or not you've just had a good laugh. That's what psychologist Alice M. Isen and her colleagues found in an experiment.

Before they were given the problem to solve, students were shown either a comedy film of bloopers or a film on math (which was not funny at all).

After watching the math film, twenty percent of the students successfully solved the problem. But seventy-five percent of the students who watched the comedy film were able to do it. The solution, by the way, is to pour the tacks out of the box and tack it to the board, putting the candle on the box.

Isen said, "Research suggests that positive memories are more extensive and are more interconnected than are negative ones so being happy may cue you into a larger and richer cognitive context, and that could significantly affect your creativity."

That's her explanation of why there was such a difference in the creativity and problem-solving ability between the two groups. Humor may be fun, but it is also tremendously helpful in making you more effective.

Rosemary Cogan, PhD, at Texas Tech University, knew that once people were trained to relax, they became more able to handle pain and discomfort while they relaxed. She decided to find out if laughter could do that too. She and her colleagues took volunteers and split them into four groups. One group listened to a tape of the comedian Lily Tomlin for twenty minutes, another group listened to a twenty-minute relaxation tape, another group listened to a lecture on ethics, and the fourth group didn't listen to anything.

Then the researchers measured the volunteers' threshold of pain by putting them on a medieval rack and sticking nails into their arms. No, just kidding. They measured their pain threshold by putting a blood pressure cuff around their arm and continuing to inflate it until it was uncomfortable, and then they simply measured the amount of pressure on the dial at that point.

Two groups had higher pain thresholds: Those listening to Lily Tomlin, and those who heard the relaxation tape.

Humor actually makes you measurably tougher. It makes something painful less painful. That's handy.

According to a survey of recent business school graduates by Wayne Decker, PhD, a professor of management at Maryland's Salisbury State University, women executives are considered more competent if they have a sense of humor. This coincides with previous studies showing male managers with a sense of humor also get higher capability ratings from their underlings. Employees think managers with a sense of humor are more effective at getting things done and more concerned about the employees' well-being.


Humor is an excellent and healthy way to deal with stress. When Abraham Lincoln was in office and the Civil War was in full bloom, there wasn't a more stressful place to be for a deeply-feeling moral man than in the White House. Luckily, Lincoln had a first-rate sense of humor. He had spent his whole life developing it.

When he was an attorney, Lincoln told a clerk a funny story, and the clerk laughed out loud in court. The judge called "order in the court" and said to Lincoln, "This must be stopped. Mr. Lincoln, you are constantly disturbing this court with your stories."

Then the judge told the clerk, "You may fine yourself $5.00." The clerk apologized but said the story was worth the five bucks. A few minutes later, the judge called the clerk over and asked, "What was that story Lincoln told you?" When the clerk told him the story, the judge couldn't help it — he laughed out loud too. Then he told the clerk, "Remit your fine."

Once someone asked Lincoln how many soldiers the Confederates had in the field, Lincoln replied, "Twelve hundred thousand."

The astonished questioner gasped. How can that be? Lincoln said, "No doubt of it — twelve hundred thousand. You see, all our generals, every time they get whipped, they tell me that the enemy outnumbered them at least three to one, and I must believe them. We have four hundred thousand men in the field, and three times four equals twelve. Twelve hundred thousand men, no doubt about it." He could see the humor in just about anything. That takes practice.

While some people didn't appreciate a good sense of humor and thought it was out of place for the President of the United States during those grave and dreadful times of war, Lincoln liked his sense of humor, and had an intuitive sense of its value to his sanity and health.

In 1862, during a special session of his closest advisors, Lincoln read aloud from an article by the humorist Artemus Ward, and had a good laugh, but when he looked around, not one of them was even smiling. They obviously disapproved of his frivolity.

"Why don't you laugh?" he said, "With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do."

There was a story going around that Lincoln really liked. It seems two Quaker women were comparing the president of the Confederate states with Lincoln. "I think Jefferson will succeed," said one, "because he is a praying man."

"But so is Abraham a praying man," retorted the other.

"Yes," said the first, "but the Lord will think Abraham is joking."

Lincoln once gave his opinion of a book. He wrote, "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."


In some forms of Zen training, the student is given a koan. A koan is a question or a story that is puzzling in some way. For example, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" The discipline is to stay with the koan until you "get" it. Sometimes this takes months, even years. When the students are monks and live in a monastery, they stay with the koan while they eat, sleep, cook, clean, and also they spend time in intense periods several times a day doing nothing but hanging out with that koan (zazen, or sitting meditation).

The student stays with the koan intensely, wrestling with it, fighting with it, trying to look at it from different angles, trying to "figure it out," allowing it to be there, and so on. Intensely. They say that it is like swallowing the moon, and it gets stuck half way down. The frustration can stay at a high pitch for a long time.

And then something happens. The student gets it. Often this is a full-blown "awakening" and the student is never the same again.

I have a question for you. It is not a koan, but it works well to hang out with the question until you "get it." The question is, "How can I see this as funny?" If there's something that is most definitely not funny in your life, something troubling or upsetting, ask this question and keep asking it, and go through the frustration of not coming up with anything until finally you can, in fact, see it as funny. Not only will your feelings about that particular thing lighten up, but your general ability to see humor will improve as well.

A good sense of humor is a trait we all admire, but very few actively cultivate it. Here's the big trade secret of the good comedians: It takes practice. It takes thought.

It looks so natural and spontaneous when comedians stand up there and make us laugh because they practiced making it look spontaneous and natural. Now admittedly, many comedians are good at making off-the-cuff comments that are funny (and those comments are significantly more funny when we know they are extemporaneous), but even that is a skill that took practice, usually from the time they were kids.

Sometimes a child will decide to be funny, to be good at making people laugh, and since kids don't usually have much to do with their time, and they spend a lot of time hanging out with their friends, they have lots of time to practice, and some of those kids grow up to be the comedians we know and love, and they are extremely good at it.

You may never be that good at it. But that's okay. There's no need to be the best or even really good. A little more humor is worthwhile. And you don't have to stop your life or go to humor school or in any way use up time to learn to see the humor in things.

Just start doing it.


"When you're talking to people," I might suggest, "if it's appropriate, try to say something funny."

"But," you might protest, "what if it doesn't work?"

"No big deal. Even well-honed professional comedians bomb with jokes."

"But that'll be embarrassing. People will think I'm a fool."

"It doesn't really matter to your listeners if it doesn't matter to you. Of course if your face turns red and you start crying, it will bother them that your comment wasn't funny. But if you mentally shrug your shoulders and go on, so will they."

"Okay," you say, "I'll keep making attempts at saying something funny."

"And thinking something funny. You have a lot of material to work with, and you don't even have to open your mouth."

"What do you mean?"

"You have opportunities every day to train yourself to look at the side of life that makes you laugh, or at least produces a little smile."

"When I'm feeling blue?"

"Whenever. You can do it when you're feeling fine or when something has just miffed you. Either way, it's good practice. Anytime your mind is idle, you can practice."

"How, exactly?"

"Ask yourself, How could I see this as funny? Or What's funny about this? Keep trying on different perspectives."

"Different perspectives?"

"Yes. Try on the perspective of your favorite comedians. What do you think they might do with your situation? How would they describe it to an audience in a way that gets a laugh. Or try the perspective of you in the future."

"You mean, looking back on this and laughing?"

"Exactly. Look from the perspective of you as a ninety year-old, telling your pals about it and having a good laugh with them. What could you say about it, or how could you say it that makes them laugh?"

How could I see this as funny? What's funny about this? A lot of the time while you're pondering these questions, it won't be funny. Or fun. That's okay. As anyone knows who has learned to play the piano, you have to play scales. Over and over again. It's tedious and boring. Not fun. But when you can finally play something well — especially a song you like — it is very much fun indeed. But you can't get there without the non-fun part.

Same with humor. So keep plugging away at it. Ask the questions and keep asking them, and over time you'll get better and better at seeing what's funny about things.

Jack Benny, the famous comedian, says his father wanted him to become a great violinist, but Jack only wanted to practice the easy parts. His dad always told him, "To be a success in anything, you must practice the hard parts."

"Music was hard work for me," wrote Jack, "even though I hadn't really been applying Father's advice." He was playing the violin for vaudeville acts. Then he did a little vaudeville show himself, playing the violin and throwing in a joke or two, which got some laughs. "Now, I reasoned, if I could entertain an audience by just breezing out on the stage, a comedian. Ah, but I soon discovered that telling jokes was not a breeze after all. Sometimes you could throw a punch line away, other times you had to ride it hard. A pause could set up a joke — or bury it. Timing was the key. In short, there were skills to be mastered in comedy, just as there had been in music. And there were many hard parts to be mastered in comedy, just as there had been in music. The difference was that I had found a field where I really wanted to dig in."

Ask the questions and keep asking. In your spare time. When you're driving. As you're drifting off to sleep at night. Ponder one of those questions. You can even try sitting down and doing nothing but pondering one of those questions. The best, most challenging time to use the questions is when you're experiencing something that is not funny at all.

When you have listened to a stand-up comedian, have you ever had the thought, I wish I could see what's funny about things like that? A good sense of humor is a trait we all admire, and for good reason: It is good for your health, your relationships, good for relieving stress, it feels good, and it even enhances your creativity. Keep asking that question and you'll become more flexible about your perspective; it'll be easier to change perspectives, because that's one of the ways to find humor. There are certain pathways and subskills about humor you'll learn along the way, so you'll be skilled at seeing humor — not only in any specific instance you've practiced with, but in general. The skill will be there, and can be used on any situation that life may throw your way.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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