Humor, Seriously.

February 4, 2021

Humor, Seriously.

May 29, 2023

It’s an honor and a ball of fun to interview my friend Jennifer Aaker and co-author Naomi Bagdonas and publish it here on Wisdom Well just two days after their new book, “Humor, Seriously,” has arrived on bookstore shelves...or, more accurately, in Amazon’s warehouses.

CC: I've long said (long as in "the past 4 years") that a modern elder is an alchemist - confidence and doubt, wisdom and curiosity, and gravitas and levity. That levity may be the hardest ingredient to come by in times like these. Can you talk about its importance?

JA: Absolutely. We’d associate levity with elders in the full sense of the word - it has significant life-extending effects. A fifteen-year longitudinal study of more than 50,000 Norwegians showed that having a strong sense of humor can expand your life by eight years. Eight years! That’s as much as a fairly heavy drinker would gain from quitting alcohol, so it’s a profound effect. And laughter is free, whereas alcohol can add up.

And with a robust sense of humor, you stand a much better chance of making those years both happy and meaningful. Because humor — like nothing else — helps create meaning in our lives and insulate us from the hardest, darkest parts of it.

A lot of humor’s power is chemical. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of healthy hormones — dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin. And this changes not just how we feel — more calm, confident, energized, and resourceful — but how others perceive us — as more influential, likeable, and trustworthy.

CC: So, humor makes you healthy. I like that. Can you explain the global humor cliff?

NB: It might be the least fun cliff to fall off of and is definitely the easiest to climb back up with the right tools. A Gallup study of over 1.4 million people across 166 countries asked a simple question: “did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” At ages 16, 18, 20, the answer was pretty consistently yes. Then around age 23 – when most of us enter the workforce – the “yes” responses decline precipitously, bottoming out in middle age, and not climbing back up again until around retirement.

Consider this: the average 4-year old laughs up to 300 times per day; the average 40-year old laughs that many times in 2.5 months.

So, let’s beat toddlers. A phrase which, now after saying out loud, I’m deeply regretting.

CC: So how do we climb up the humor cliff?

One of the most valuable things we discovered is that humor falls into four general types:

Stand-Up. Bold, irreverent, and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers for a laugh. Think Amy Schumer
Sweetheart. Earnest, understated, and use humor that lightens the mood. Like Jimmy Kimmel
Sniper. Edgy, sarcastic, masters of the unexpected dig. Consider Michelle Wolf or Dennis O’Leary
Magnet. Expressive, charismatic, and easy to make laugh. Jimmy Fallon is a magnet

Each type has their strengths and weaknesses, and we emphasize the types not only to understand your own type and how it might affect other people, but also to understand other people around you and what they’re trying to express through their humor.

Magnet and Sweetheart are easier to get along with, because so much of their humor is uplifting, but the aggressive types, Sniper and Stand-up, are good at getting uncomfortable truths into the room. Which is important when things need to be said. Usually, Standups, especially stand-ups who also are in touch with their Magnet side are a little better about getting people on-board with those truths, because they’re expressive instead of subtle. People get what they’re saying.

Come check out the styles here:

CC: You mention that there are techniques from comedians that are useful. Can you give some examples?

A few of our favorites are exaggeration, contrast, and misdirection.

  • Exaggeration is taking a real observation – that’s the key, comedy starts with truth – and blowing it up until it’s comical or noticeable. For example, Jerry Seinfeld says “98% of all human endeavor is killing time.” Obviously, it’s not true that we spend 49 out of 50 of our waking moments trying to waste them, but we do tend to spend more time than we think - even during meetings. So it’s true, even though it’s exaggerated
  • Contrast is noticing something odd, and setting up a clear counterexample that draws it out. Like Ellen DeGeneres says, “Accept who you are. Unless you’re a serial killer.” There’s a contrast between this goal we have, self-acceptance, and the fact that at a certain point there’s behavior that just isn’t ever acceptable. And so she picks an extreme example to draw out this contrast
  • Misdirection, which is sometimes illustrated by the “rule of three.” You set up a pattern and then break it. A great rule of three joke is when Maria Bamford says: "Thirty ways to shape up for summer. Number one: eat less. Number two: exercise more. Number three: what was I talking about again? I'm so hungry." Those first two examples get you thinking these are straight dieting tips. But then she breaks the pattern with the third example, and actually plays off the first two in an unexpected way. There’s a truth there, too. Dieting is easier said than done. Being hungry really does make it hard to concentrate.

To help people learn these tools, we created a 21-day humor bootcamp you can take via text message ( Humor is sometimes hard, but it gets (much) easier when you develop a habit.

CC: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?

Humor is a secret weapon that is underappreciated and underleveraged in life. Research studies conducted by hospice workers have revealed surprising consistency about what people wish for in their final days of life — the regrets they have when looking back on how they’ve spent their time. From this work, five themes emerged: Boldness. Authenticity. Presence. Joy. And Love.

Here’s the big secret: humor mitigates all five of these regrets:

  • I wish I lived more boldly. Humor moves us through negative emotions more quickly — defusing tension, empowering us to take bolder risks.
  • I wish I lived more authentically. Humor helps us express ourselves authentically. When we’re finding joy, we care less about what people think and do more of what we believe.
  • I wish I savored more and was more present. Humor requires us to be fully present, to listen hard - to search for hidden truths in each moment. It requires us to live in the reality that each moment as it unfolds — is our life
  • I wish I laughed more and didn’t take myself so seriously. When you navigate your life on the precipice of a smile, you’ll be surprised how many places joy can be found or created and how easy it becomes to laugh generously.
  • I wish I had the chance to say I love you one more time. There are few acts as easy and generous as sharing a laugh with someone. Where there is humor, love isn’t far behind.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas at Stanford are launching their new book Humor, Seriously on Tuesday. It was #1 in the Financial Times recommended reads and featured in Fast Company and Stanford Business Magazine, plus on Good Morning America (where you’ll learn why laughter is like exercising, meditating, and having sex… at the same time!). Order a hardcover today and get a special early ebook FREE:

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