'Why humour is good for you – and it is a learnable competence'

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By Dennis Sale

Humour was certainly not a significant feature of my school experience, well not in classroom time. It seemed that learning was a very serious business and anything resembling a joke was a prelude to classroom disruption.

As a Cockney from East London, I have always felt that humour was one of the most important aspects of human experience, and this is now supported through a wide range of research. The world-famous psychologist Edward de Bono (2003) referred to humour as ‘…by far the most significant activity of the human brain’.

Humour makes us feel better, is enjoyable, has a positive effect on our psychological state, and that’s why people go to such lengths to experience it as often as they can. Whenever we laugh at something funny, we are experiencing an emotional high that is rooted in the biochemistry of our brains. The brain naturally seeks dopamine-releasing activities that we feel good in, and humour certainly is such an activity. Apart from creating pleasure (typically manifesting in laughter), it can reduce pain (as it distracts attention away from the object or perception of pain, if only fleetingly), and is typically novel in some way.

Concerning novelty, de Bono saw humour as central to creativity as it disrupts the brain’s natural tendency to self-organise based on already existing neural pathways, which typically restricts creative thinking or lateral thinking in his terminology.

Also, humour has much of merit in a teaching context, as Earlywine (2010) noted:

‘…a full semester of instruction that includes relevant jokes that illustrate key concepts lead to better scores in final exams.’

As Morrison (2008) explained:

‘…humour affects the attentional centre of the brain and increases the likelihood of memory storage and long-term retrieval. Humour has the potential to hook easily bored and inattentive students. As brain food, humour can’t be beaten.’

Not only is humour good for us to experience, but it is a great personal competence to acquire for many reasons. I have a good friend who has immense creative capability for humour generation. He can tell the funniest of stories, display spontaneous wit, which typically gets folk laughing at will. When he is not present at an event, people notice immediately and ask, ‘Where is Tom?’ If he is not coming, the groans of disappointment can be audibly heard. Tom’s presence creates pleasure and novelty, and people feel comfortable in talking (and laughing) openly with him. He creates excellent rapport with people, and we know the power of good rapport.

So is humour a learnable competence, or are some people naturally funny and others simply not so? Of course, personality configuration, socialisation, and cultural factors will inevitably play a significant part. However, humour like other aspects of human capability is a procedural skill that can be understood, modelled, and learned.

For example, when telling a joke or a story, there are key aspects of an effective presentation. These include keeping it moving quickly, using an expressive voice tone, appropriate modulation, calibrated body language, and a quick pause before the punchline. This is not difficult to understand, model, and with deliberate practice, a reasonable proficiency is achievable quite quickly.

When people tell me they can’t do this, I can usually change their minds in around two hours of coaching them. Of course, they are not quite ready for a professional career as a comedian but are able to incorporate a humour component to their repertoire of communication skills. In teaching/training contexts, it’s even easier as there is a multitude of media resources to draw on. One does not need to possess wit, just sufficient understanding of how humour works to blend pre-existing resources to context.

Quick wit is perhaps the gold standard of humour capability, certainly the most difficult to do consistently well, and requires great skill in terms of recognising when and how to use it. The Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, is one of the best I have seen in terms of situated quick wit.

Now, if you want to develop this challenging but beneficial competence, you must firstly recognise that there are risks involved, be prepared to be brave, and persevere with the desired goal in mind. I remember learning to play the guitar and making a noise like a cat trapped in a tin dustbin, getting ridicule from folk around me, and comments like, ‘You have no natural musical talent’. Of course, I was never going to be a Jimi Hendrix, but I understood my present learning situation – a ‘novice’ (lacking in knowledge and skill in this area) and knew the barriers/challenges to be faced. Hence, I was able to maintain the necessary belief and, most importantly, summon up willpower to persevere.

After developing a basic competency in moving through chords G, F, and C and a strumming technique, ‘the cat had settled down in the tin dustbin’ – to continue the metaphor. In developing competence in being funny, you must deal with not being funny immediately, suffer some/much ridicule and, in today’s context, be wary of offending certain folk – which sadly (my frame) is becoming increasingly prevalent. However, for those who dare, here’s some guiding principles:

  • Consider all the main genres of humour (eg jokes, stories, witticisms, impersonations) and see what you feel most comfortable with. Telling jokes and stories are the easier ones to develop competence in.

  • Find resources to help you understand how that type of humour works (all have an underpinning syntax). Review a range of examples of people using this humour type, model and visualise what they do, and then do your spaced, deliberate practice. Chunk up the learning if necessary and persevere.

  • Use this humour initially in the least-threatening situations and review its impact – you will know its impact by how people react. The meaning of any communication is the response you get.

  • Persist, and be mindful that you will need repeated practice over time to build a repertoire of humour resources. I have spoken to many comedians in different cultural contexts, and they have stocks of jokes, stories, witticisms in their long-term memory systems, and can pull these out in situ – almost an unconscious competence. I remember one professional comedian who used the analogy of folders and sub folders to retain his content. For example, one folder was ‘Creatures’, with subfolders of dogs, cats, camels, parrots, etc. I was intrigued by him having jokes about parrots and asked how many he had and could I hear these. I can still recall all three of them; how many parrot jokes do you know? (a rhetorical question, of course).

In summary, humour is good for us as humans, is a learnable skill set, and, on a more serious note, is perhaps our best and only defence against nature.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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