Most of us have strange habits. Here’s one of Steve Sultanoff’s: From time to time, he goes out in public wearing a clown nose (and carries one with him always). His reasoning is pretty straightforward: “You just never know when a clown nose might come in handy,” he says. Sultanoff also carries a false Elvis driver’s license, which he presents at hotels whenever he checks in.
Strange as they sound, Sultanoff’s quirks serve a purpose. The Irvine-based psychologist and self-described “clinical mirthologist” is a hard-core proponent of the idea that humor, experienced often and in everyday life, can enhance one’s health, friendships, and even romantic relationships. And he’s right: Laughter, humor’s external measurement, is clinically shown to reduce blood pressure, increase pain tolerance, and boost the immune system. It even makes you sexier: A survey conducted this year by Discover and Match Media Group found that 67 percent of respondents cited having a sense of humor as “very” or “extremely” important in a potential mate.
Of course, for many of us, seeing someone bust out a clown nose at the DMV is more likely to induce an eye roll than a laugh. But it makes Sultanoff chuckle, and that’s the point. Many people misunderstand humor as a purely relational experience — they focus on making better jokes, or coming up with the perfect quip. But according to Sultanoff, the path to a better sense of humor starts from within. That’s because the building blocks of humor are universal: Most of what we find funny will translate to others. So if you’re looking for how to improve your sense of humor, you would do well to start by making yourself laugh. Here’s how to get there.
Know what funny means.
Let’s start off by considering what humor really is. “You could start with the simple definition, which is that humor is what makes us laugh,” Sultanoff says. However, he notes that humor can be experienced without laughter, like when we type ‘lol’ into a text message without laughing, or read a great Calvin & Hobbes strip with a stony face. A better indicator for something humorous, Sultanoff says, is if it induces “mirth,” or that internal feeling of “ha” we all experience — a glimmery, satisfying recognition of a specific type of pleasure.
One of the more well-known theories of humor is the “benign violation” theory — the idea that something is funny when it disrupts your sense of normalcy, but only in a way that doesn’t present any real harm. That can take the form of simple incongruity, when two unlike things merge (one famous example taken from Harry Potter: Severus Snape wearing Neville Longbottom’s grandmother’s green dress and hat). It can also take the form of outrageousness, like when comedians violate social norms to shock us into laughter (think Sarah Silverman, or the South Park guys).
A related element, Sultanoff says, is “a threat that never was,” when you suddenly realize, in the midst of an unclear, slightly threatening predicament, that everything is actually safe. Sultanoff cites the TV show Candid Camera as an example of this. A similar phenomenon is something he describes as “emotional chaos, remembered in tranquility,” like cracking jokes in the aftermath of a natural disaster. (Research says the sweet spot for this type of humor — so the jokes aren’t too soon, but still have some relevance — is just over a month after the event in question.)
Understanding the fundamentals of humor is just one small piece of the puzzle, though. To incorporate this knowledge into your life, you’ll need to work in three broad categories: First, you need to work on seeing these elements in the world around you; second, you need to consciously increase the amount of humor in your life; and finally, you’ll need to learn how to translate all this funny business to others.
Learn what to look for.
As a young boy, Sultanoff remembers, he and his dad once drove past a cemetery near their home. “At the end of the street there was a sign that said, ‘dead end,’” he recalls. “‘Now, some people might not even notice that.’” But his dad thought it was hilarious, and rightly so. These days, Sultanoff tries to look for humor everywhere — in street signs, at restaurants, and, of course, after hurricanes.
Sultanoff recalls his father’s find as an example of “comic vision,” or the ability to see funniness in everyday life. “Look at the absurdity around you. Check for incongruities,” he advises. Comic vision is an essential skill for a humorist, he says. By looking at the world through funky-colored lenses, you’ll start experiencing humorous situations more often, which will ultimately provide fodder for your interactions with others.
Seek out situations that make you laugh.
Spending time with things you already find funny — TV shows, movies, podcasts, etc. — can do a great deal to help you refine your own personal sense of humor: You learn what type of humor you like, and, just as important, what you don’t. For example, Sultanoff, who likes puns and nerdy jokes, regularly watches The Big Bang Theory; on the flip side, he’s learned that sitcoms about struggling 20-somethings, such as Friends, don’t sate his humor appetite, and so he doesn’t bother watching something he knows won’t benefit from. Once you know what kinds of humor you like, you can expand your palate slowly and consciously — for example, going from Big Bang Theory to another nerd-related show, or Friends to Cheers.
It’s also possible to reverse-engineer humor by laughing, Sultanoff says. He cites laughter yoga and laughter clubs, in which people make themselves laugh for health benefits and end up experiencing mirth as well. We do this organically in many social situations, too: people, especially women, laugh to facilitate social interactions even if nothing humorous is going on. Laugh generously, and you’re building a social environment that’s more conducive to future funny moments.
Find a joke buddy.
If you really want to make yourself funnier, you have to practice — and the best way to do that is to get someone to hold you accountable. Set a goal: Once a day, maybe, tell that person a joke. It’s best if done in person, okay over the phone, and worst over text, but when you have a ready-made audience, any bit helps.
If you want to kick things up a notch, you can also sign up for an improv class, which helps build the same skills that make someone funny in a more natural setting. Improv requires tremendous amounts of comic vision — you have to be able to see the potential humor in a random situation — as well as quick reflexes and delivery to get the joke out into the world. Most professional improv organizations offer classes to nonprofessionals, be they amateurs or aspiring comedians. If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are there’s a theater offering classes near you.
Know your audience.
Ultimately, most humor translates across situational boundaries, Sultanoff says, so the idea of developing something like “workplace-specific humor” is somewhat overrated — as long as you keep the jokes appropriate to the setting, the building blocks of humor will stay the same. But it is important to know what kind of people you’re talking to. A joke that works on Americans might not work so well in Taiwan, for instance, simply because cultural norms are different.
The trick, Sultanoff says, is to know how to apply the basic principles of humor to specific situations. For instance, the idea of the “gag” — a simple, recurring joke that employs incongruity and perhaps a prop —translates perfectly to a workplace environment in the mockumentary sitcom The Office, like the scene in the first episode when Jim places Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O. The Office is actually full of such gags — the deadpan look at the camera, Michael’s recurring speech errors, Creed’s weird eating habits — that familiarize us with the absurdity of the characters but are also specific to the world of the show, which is a strange parallel to the corporate workspace that many of us know.
And these gags got funnier over time. Know why? Because Jim (well, John Krasinski) and the rest of the Office team had time to familiarize themselves with the show’s unique and batty sense of humor — and so did we. The more Office-specific pranks that occurred, and the more each character had their opportunity to joke around, the more viewers developed their taste for the show’s unique flavor of humor. We built our relationships with the characters, and internalized their pranks and personalities. Over time, their jokes became our own.