The book based on my Ph.D.
book cover
was published by Yad Vashem

What is Humor


Dr. Chaya Ostrower

What is the purpose of humor? why do we laugh?
Humor is a complex phenomenon There is no general theory of humor or even an agreed definition.
When we try to define exactly what counts as humor and what does not, or how humor operates, we find it quite difficult.
Humor is comprised of three components: wit, mirth, and laughter.
Wit is the cognitive experience, Mirth the emotional experience, Laughter the physiological experience.
We often equate laughter with humor, but there are many instances of laughter (tickling, nervousness, etc.) that clearly have little to do with humor.
Similarly, there are many instances of humor that do not result in laughter (due to the mood of the appreciator, the social context, etc.).
Humor is a quality of perception that enables us to experience joy even when faced with adversity.
Stress is an adverse condition during which we may experience tension or fatigue, feel unpleasant emotions and sometimes develop a sense of hopelessness or futility.
You cannot feel stress, angry, depressed, anxious, guilty, or resentful and experience humor at the same time.
Like beauty being in the eyes of the beholder, humor is in the funny bone of the receiver of the experience.

Central Theories of Humor

Superiority Theories

Suggest that people laugh at others to whom they feel superior. The laugher always looks down on whatever he laughs at, and so judges it inferior by some standard. According to this view, all humor is derisive.

Relief Theories

Since humor often calls conventional social requirements into question, it may be regarded as affording us relief from the restraint of conforming to those requirements. Moreover, people who have been undergoing a strain will sometimes burst into laughter if the strain is suddenly removed.
Freud (1905) regards humor as a means of outwitting the "censor," his name for the internal inhibitions which prevent us from giving rein to many of our natural impulses.
According to Freud, the censor will allow us to indulge in these forbidden thoughts only if it is first beguiled or disarmed in some way. The beguiling is done, he thinks, by means of the techniques of humor. It is not only our sexual impulses that are repressed by the censor, but also our aggressive ones.

Incongruity Theories

Incongruity is often identified with "frustrated expectation", a concept we owe to Kant (1724-1804), who says that humor arises "from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing".

Defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms (or coping styles) are automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors.
Individuals are often unaware of these processes as they operate. Defense mechanisms mediate the individual's reaction to emotional conflicts and to internal and external stressors.
The individual defense mechanisms are divided conceptually and empirically into related groups that are referred to as Defense Levels.

High adaptive level

This level of defensive functioning results in optimal adaptation in the handling of stressors.
These defenses usually maximize gratification and allow the conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences. They also promote an optimum balance among conflicting motives.


The individual deals with emotional conflict or external stressors by emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the conflict or stressor.
Humor helps us by replacing distressing emotions with pleasurable feelings.
Humor adjusts the meaning so that the event is not so powerful.
Humor reduces stress by assisting us to view the world with perspective.
Humor shifts the ways in which we think, and distress is greatly associated with the way we think.
It is not situations that generate our stress, but the meaning we place on the situations.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4TH Edition, electronic version, Page DSM-IV: 751.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4TH Edition, electronic version, Page DSM-IV: 755.
Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and its relation to the unconscious. Leipzig: Deuticke. Monro, D. H. (1988). Theories of Humor. In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen, (Eds.). Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Company, 349-355.
Piddington , R. (1963). The psychology of laughter: A study in social adaptation. New York: Gamut Press.
Wooten, P. RN BSN reproduced from Holistic Nursing Practice. 10 (2), 1996, 49-55.
Sultanoff, S. (1994). Exploring the land of mirth and funny; A voyage through the interrelationships of wit, mirth and laughter. Laugh It Up. Therapeutic Humor. July/August, p. 3.

my Ph.D  bout Me