When Humor Works

Jeremiah Gibson is a couples and family therapist in Quincy who loves to laugh.

Over the last three years, I've had a somewhat consistent lunch buddy.

Stephen Colbert.

It started with the Colbert Report, which I believe is one of the most brilliant television shows in the last decade. Stephen Colbert's Captain America shield and deconstruction of the inconsistencies of "patriotism", exposing political and social double standards in the Word (or, as it's now referred to, the Werd), and self-aggrandizing comments, a la (insert 24/7 cable news host here) has brought laughter and tears to my mid-day breaks. While I don't perceive that the new CBS late night show is nearly as good, Colbert still provides us with gems like this:

Jeffrey Hall, professor at the University of Kansas, pored through about 90 research articles about humor and laughter. In the article "Humor in Romantic Relationships: A Meta-analysis", published in this month's Personal Relationships journal, Hall identifies 6 different features of humor and writes about the ways that these processes help relationships:

Shared Meaning

How many inside jokes does your relationship have? Do you and your partner have a shared experience that every time you talk about it, both of you end up laughing?

Healthy couples are able to create and seek out humor together. They share funny stories and memories with each other. Relational humor isn't only verbal; they tickle each other and laugh together during sex. The more a couple laughs together, the greater they feel understood, and the more connected they then feel.


One of my favorite TV characters is Chandler Bing from Friends. Chandler doesn't tell the greatest stories, but his responses to the other Friends characters are just hilarious. (This link is not the only Youtube video that's an hours worth of Chandler's jokes.) Sure, Chandler is immature and sarcastic (more on sarcasm in the second post), but his jokes let you know that he's intelligent and always paying attention.

Humor is contextual--it requires the ability to read and intuit the emotional space in a conversation or experience. (There is such a thing as bad timing, which we'll talk about in the next post.)


When was the last time that you laughed while having sex? And how do you laugh together during sex in a way that both partners feel valued?

Relationships can be filled with discomfort as partners figure out how to solve problems, argue effectively, and have great sex over a long period of time. Humor can be used to ease the awkwardness, particularly when the goal of the joke supports the experience you/your partner are in. Humor can help communicate apology and remorse, particularly when combined with accountability for personal actions (rather than your partner's actions).

Coping with Stress

When do you feel powerless? How does your body let you know that you're overwhelmed?

Journalist Molly Ivins writes, "Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful." Satirists, such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, seem to be popular right now because their humor confront those that are in power; we watch their shows and feel like these comedians get it. I feel like they understand the plights of authoritarian governing practices and capitalism gone awry when they tell jokes about the Trump administration and media conglomerates.

Relational humor can help us reduce stress. Laughing increases dopamine and endorphin levels, while simultaneously reducing cortisol (the "stress hormone"). Humor sets boundaries with our anxieties by embracing the powerlessness that we have and encouraging us to not take things so seriously.

Joke Telling

Who are the people in your life that make you laugh? Who are your favorite comedians? Your favorite TV shows or comedies?

Joke tellers are often good storytellers. They describe their experiences with detail and attention to the awkward, odd, uncomfortable, and messy parts of life. They draw people in around the shared activity of laughter.

Joke Receiving

How would you describe your sense of humor? What makes you laugh?

Folks who laugh don't only take care of their own bodies by laughing, but they make others feel welcome and validated.

Joke telling and joke receiving are complementary processes. If you're in a relationship where one partner is commonly the joke teller and the other one is the joke receiver, communicate with each other areas of sensitivity. At what point does humor become offensive for the joke receiver?


John Gottman, relationship researcher, suggests that it takes five positive interactions to offset one negative one; for many couples, our experiences make it difficult to identify just one positive interaction. In relationships, it's easy to define your relationship around the negative interactions that you have. Our brains help us stay alive by looking for times when we're affronted or under attack; this gets magnified if/when we experience our bodies actually being under attack or out of our own control.

Regardless of the state of your relationship, I want to challenge you to work against your brain this week and take note of positive interactions. Specifically, keep track of the times that you and your partner laugh together about something this week. Let your partner know that you appreciated the moment of shared laughter.