The relationship between humor and curiosity
When comedy icon Steve Martin won a Mark Twain Prize in 2005, he took to the Kennedy Center stage to share a poignant quote from Twain himself:
“Whatever you do, for God’s sake, do not name a prize after me.”
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, named for the 19th-century novelist and essayist, recognizes people who have influenced society in ways similar to Twain. Which is to say, with laughter.
As a writer, Twain used humor to frame his observations, ideas, and perspectives on society, injustice, and human behavior. In a 1905 interview with the New York Times, he described humor as a “kindly veil” that could “blur the craggy outlines, and make the thorns less sharp and the cruelties less malignant.” Humor allows us to better understand (and withstand) life’s struggles, even if just a bit. In his own acceptance speech for the Twain Prize, comedian Dave Chapelle echoed this idea. “I was a soft kid. I was sensitive, I cried easy,” he said, explaining how his sensitivity drew him to comedy. “That's why I love my art form,” Chapelle said. “It saved my life.”
But what makes something funny in the first place? What is it about Steve Martin’s joke that gets an audience to roar? Why does this impolite dog similarly put a smile on our faces? “People laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts and at defiance of their expectations,” Giovanni Sabato puts it in Scientific American. Put simply, the element of surprise – a runaway dog crashing a news report – is a big part of what makes something funny. (Though maybe not for the news anchors.)
Laughter is seriously good for you. Yet the older we get, the less we do it. The average four-year-old kid laughs 300 times a day. “It takes the average 40-year-old two and a half months to laugh that many times,” behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker said on a recent Hidden Brain episode. Aaker calls this the “humor cliff”: the point at which we stop laughing and plummet into an abyss of humorless despair. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But Aaker argues that as working adults, we want to be taken seriously, so we prioritize professionalism over playfulness.
If surprise begets laughter, maybe laughter is less frequent in our adult lives because we become more predictable. For example, in a paper published in Human Development, Rachel Wu, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, theorizes that our learning styles change as we get older. “We argue that across your lifespan, you go from ‘broad learning’ (learning many skills as an infant or child) to ‘specialized learning,’ (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working,” Wu said in a statement. As adults, we become focused on our specialty and less curious about the world outside of it. Wu and her colleagues argue that this lack of curiosity might even lead to cognitive decline.
Humor requires observation and a curious mind, yet our adult lives demand professionalism and focus. Maybe the key to scaling our way back up the humor cliff is to more deliberately approach life the way we did when we were kids – with more playfulness. As Twain put it, “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”
ON THE PODCAST
April 19: When’s the last time you laughed really hard at something? If you have a tough time coming up with an answer, you’re not alone. As we get older, humor seems to be in short supply in our lives. In this week’s episode, why we all reach a “humor cliff” in adulthood – and what we can do to keep from falling off.
April 26: Do you find yourself struggling to communicate with your mom? Ever feel like you and your spouse are speaking different languages? This week, we look at the many pitfalls we confront in conversations, and how we can learn to be better communicators.
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