What Does Your Sense of Humor Say About You?

Psychologists are taking the adage that “there’s no such thing as a joke” to entirely new places, and they’re finding that your sense of humor might say more about you than you realize.

In 2003, researchers in London – London, Ontario, that is – created the Humor Style Questionnaire based on the idea that it might be interesting to measure how people use different types of humor.

The team that created the Humor Styles Questionnaire identified four kinds of humor:

  • Self-enhancing humor: Humor you use to enhance yourself
  • Affiliative humor: Humor you use to further your relationships with others
  • Aggressive humor: Humor you use to enhance yourself while putting down others
  • Self-defeating humor: Humor you use to further your relationships with others but at your own expense

Since 2003, a range of studies have used the Humor Styles Questionnaire to learn more about what people’s senses of humor say about them, and it turns out some humor styles seem to be more correlated with happiness than others.

Specifically, self-enhancing and affiliative humor styles appear to be associated with better psychological wellbeing overall than self-defeating and aggressive humor styles.

For example, a 2010 study linked affiliative humor to positive self-evaluations, higher social self-esteem and lower levels of depression. Self-defeating humor, on the other hand, was associated with negative self-evaluations, lower social self-esteem and higher levels of depression.

Another study published the same year looked at the relationship between humor and empathy. It found that people who used more affiliative humor tended to express more empathic concern and that people who used more self-enhancing humor tended to be better at taking the perspectives of others. Those who used aggressive humor, meanwhile, were worse at perspective taking.

More recent research has looked at the relationship between humor styles and playfulness in adults. Once again, it’s affiliative and self-enhancing humor that take the gold and silver medals. The study showed that more playful adults tend to make more use of these two humor styles and that these kinds of humor predict subjective happiness.

Overall, then, people who use humor in a positive way toward themselves and others tend to be happier and more empathetic.

Of course, that’s not to say you should never use the “negative” humor styles or that making one self-defeating joke will destine you to be unhappy and lacking in empathy for the rest of your life. After all, humor is still humor – a survey comparing stand-up comedians and students found that stand-up comedians tend to score higher on all humor styles than students.

That said, the stand-up comedians who used the most self-defeating humor experienced less career success and even tended to be less intelligent. Nothing to laugh about there!

So go ahead and make your jokes, but know that you could be revealing more about yourself than you think! After all, there’s nothing like a meta-analysis showing you’re statistically less likely to be happy than other people to wipe the grin off your face.

Image: FreeImages.com/Emiliano Spada


  1. Steve on August 17, 2016 at 10:57 am

    To me, it seems there is a “Part B” to the last one, *Self-defeating humor*.

    This came to mind when reading this interesting article simply because I feel I know several, including myself, that are prime examples.

    It’s also “self defeating” (although “defeating” does not seem to be correct) where one finds humor in things about themselves that is embarrassing if not insulting and such is shared perhaps? as some kind of “This is why I am alone and……..I don’t mind, so “stay back. You don’t want any of this.”

    An example would be similar to something like someone asking me why I live alone and do most everything I do alone. My reply would be “I’m old, half crippled up, over weight, living paycheck to paycheck and have a junk truck. Heck, If I had a choice, I WOULDN’T do anything with me either.”

    2 cents

    • Neil Petersen on August 18, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      That’s a good point Steve, thanks for commenting. I think there’s something very positive about this kind of humor. It’s kind of like if you’ve ever had a bad day where one thing after another happens to you, at first it’s annoying, then it’s infuriating, then it becomes just straight-up funny.

  2. skye on August 19, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    interesting. though was hoping to try out the questionnaire to better understand the generalizations . I find it unfortunate that Id have to pay so much.. but still very interesting.

    • Neil Petersen on August 20, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      It’s true, the questionnaire is for researchers with budgets, and the rest of us are SOL. 😛