Definitions of Humor


Definition of Humor: What is humor?

The following copyrighted material is excerpted from:

Sultanoff, Steven M. "Integrating Humor into Psychotherapy." in Play Therapy with Adults. Ed. Charles Schaefer, New York, NY: Wiley and Sons, 2002.

For a more detailed discussion please consult the chapter listed above

The Universal Traits of Humor

            While each individual has a distinct sense of humor and may be tickled by events that are different from those that tickle friends and family, there are universal categories of "stimuli" that trigger humorous reactions in all human beings.

Why is it that some people experience humor in a particular situation, while others do not?  When two people experience the same event and react differently, that difference is based on each individual’s unique perception.

While it is clear that ”sense of humor” varies widely among individuals and groups, it is the presence of one or more of the universal characteristics of humor that make events more likely to be perceived as funny by the observer. Among the universal characteristics that may produce a humorous response are the experiences of:

·               Incongruity,

·               Absurdity, ludicrousness, or ridiculousness,

·               An unexpected future,

·               A pleasant surprise,

·               Being startled,

·               “Getting it,” and

·               Emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.

A sense of humorcan be defined as the ability to perceive one or more of the universal characteristics. Therefore, one’s sense of humor involves the capacity to appreciate incongruity, absurdity, an unexpected future, a pleasant surprise, a startle, getting it and/or emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.


When a stimulus is perceived as incongruous, it is likely to be experienced as humorous. Oxymorons (pairs of words that go together yet mean the opposite of each other) are often experienced as funny based on their incongruity. Examples include: jumbo shrimp, act naturally, working vacation, definite maybe, same difference, genuine imitation, etc.

Absurdity, Ridiculousness and Ludicrousness

A stimulus that results in some absurd, ridiculous, or ludicrous perception may be experienced as humorous.  Simple exaggeration can be a particularly effective humorous stimulus.

The Unexpected Future

A stimulus may also be perceived as humorous when an expected future is replaced with an unexpected one. The more unexpected the event, the more likely it will be perceived as humorous. Often the punch line of a joke presents an unexpected future or result. Slapstick comedy is a common source of unexpected future, as are cartoons.

Pleasant Surprise

Another quality of a stimulus that may make it humorous is the presentation of a pleasant surprise. When we are mildly surprised or tricked, the experience may result in our feeling delighted. A surprise party, or receiving an unexpected gift, or finding a dollar bill on the ground all provide a pleasant surprise.

Businesses often use the “pleasant surprise” to promote their services. Examples include the sign on a plumbing repair truck that reads, “A flush beats a full house” or the sign on a muffler shop that says, “No appointment necessary. We will hear you coming.”

Being Startled

Being startled may also create a humorous response, if the stimulus is quickly perceived to be non-threatening. The television show “Candid Camera” is a classic example of the element of surprise and experiencing a startle that is quickly perceived as harmless. It was after the  “star” of the Candid Camera prank heard those famous words, “Smile--you’re on Candid Camera” that the situation was quickly perceived as harmless and, along with a sense of relief, came the delight and amusement of the “victim.”

Getting It

For some individuals, it is not the incongruity, the surprise, or being startled that is funny, but it is simply the “getting it.” Sometimes it is the cognitive appreciation, or the joy of “solving” the twist in the situation that is experienced as humorous. We sometimes hear people exclaim, “I get it!” as an indicator of this discovery.

Emotional Chaos Remembered in Tranquility

While a stimulus that presents incongruity, surprise, or startle may be perceived as humorous, James Thurber proposed that, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” We have all heard the expression--“It wasn’t funny at the time!”  Humor may be experienced when the chaos of the past is viewed at a peaceful moment in the future.  Survivor groups (e.g., cancer survivors) are filled with humor about the process of recovery. While humor does not reduce the seriousness of an illness or traumatic event, it certainly lightens the load of coping with the trauma and aids in the healing process by offering perspective and assisting the client on the path toward recovery.

The Experience of Humor

While we often assume that a person’s sense of humor is based on his/her expression of laughter, one’s “sense of humor” or individual experience of humor is far more complex. An individual’s reaction to a humorous stimulus may be observed through the physiological response of laughter, but a humorous reaction can also include the individual’s emotional and/or cognitive changes as a result of the stimulus. The emotional and/or cognitive effects are, for the most part, not outwardly expressed and, therefore, not apparent to the observer. The experience of humor, therefore, is a complex interaction involving an individual’s physiological response (laughter), emotional response (mirth), and/or cognitive response (wit) to a humorous stimulus (Sultanoff, 1994).


While one’s “sense of humor” is highly idiosyncratic and individualized, it is based on one’s awareness and perception of a stimulus that is presented in the context of one or more of the universal traits. The universal qualities of the stimulus-receiver interaction increase the probability of a specific event being perceived as humorous. These include the presentation and perception of incongruity, absurdity, surprise, expected replaced with unexpected, non-threatening startle, getting it, and finally, chaos remembered in tranquility.

Once a stimulus is perceived as humorous, it will trigger a reaction within the individual. This reaction may be physiological (laughter), cognitive (wit), or emotional (mirth), or a combination of these experiences. Therefore, the total sensation of a humorous event is a complex interaction of a stimulus, an individual’s perception, and the resulting reaction.

For an articles explaining humor and its component parts of wit, mirth, and laughter check out

Exploring the Land of Mirth and Funny or 
Tickling Our Funny Bone

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Humor Matters™

Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D.
Mirthologist and Clinical Psychologist
3972 Barranca Pkwy. Suite J-221
Irvine, CA 92606