In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Humor and Laughter

  • Introduction
  • Historic Perspective
  • Evolution of Humor
  • Humor
  • Theories of Humor
  • Cognition’s Role in Humor
  • Humor as a Social Phenomenon
  • Smile and Laughter
  • Mental Health’s Close Relation to Humor
  • Play and Creativity
  • Group Glee
  • Anxiety Affects Humor
  • Destructive

Childhood Studies Humor and Laughter
Kirsten Flaten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0255


There is an Irish proverb that states, “A good laugh and a good night’s sleep are the best cures the doctor can prescribe.” This article focuses on the concept of humor and the necessity of the positive feelings contributed by humor, smile, and laughter in our lives, and the connection to well-being, socialization, and mental health. There are no definite demarcation lines of who benefits from humor; these benefits play a vital role during our entire lifespan and occur in a variety of situations. One fact about humor is easy to agree upon: we all need it. There are differences in what causes humor in children and adults, differences based on maturity, cognition, interests, and experience. And there is also what society considers as acceptable humor. We all need the relaxation that comes with a good laugh or the soft pleasure of a smile. When smiling and laughter disappear, it can be a sign of deteriorating mental health. This article covers humor in a very elemental way, touching on a topic that deserves more attention within the fields of pedagogy and psychology. Humor has a long history, perhaps as long as human existence, and it has come a long way from being perceived as something immoral and immature, to the current view that cherishes laughter and fun. The stages of humor development in children is covered, along with the topic of how anxiety can influence the ability to perceive humor. Humor is like the sculpture of Janus: it has two faces. Humor can be fun and mirth, social connection and play. And then there is the darker side, a sinister and hurtful side of humor. Humor is linked with mental health. When humor disappears it’s a sign of deteriorating mental health. Looking at humor styles it is distinct what is good and what is negative humor, and what positive humor can build up, negative humor can tear down. In real life there might be more nuances to humor than comes out in an academic paper. Even what is described as negative humor can be very useful sometimes, for example, thinking about children conquering fright by ridiculing a monster.

Historic Perspective

Humor and laughter have been part of human life for as long as humankind has existed, and it has been found in all cultures worldwide. The focus by scholars on humor as a phenomenon, as a way of understanding human behavior and emotions, has a long history. The Greek philosopher Plato dismissed the importance of humor and laughter, and Aristoteles considered it a disgrace to laugh (McDonald 2012). Scholars from about 1800 associated humor with the morally dubious, where the use of negative humor like mockery and sarcasm was a way to set oneself above others. This fits with the superiority theory, which is covered under Theories of Humor. McDonald 2012 points out that to laugh out loud was seen as something not worthy of a gentleman or a lady. It was described as an effort to distort the facial features and make people ugly, and also as a sign of childishness or stupidity. Wickberg 2015 tells us that the expression “sense of humor” came to life in the 1840s, and that by the 1870s humor had become a valued personality trait. But there might still be a tendency to think that people who laugh a lot are superficial and not in tune with the depths and seriousness of life. Who hasn’t been hushed when laughing too loud in a restaurant or somewhere else in public?

  • McDonald, P. Philosophy of Humor. Penrith, UK: Humanities-Ebooks, 2012.

    McDonald gives a historic perspective to humor and maps out the development of modern humor. People have always laughed, but historically humor has not always been a cherished element.

  • Wickberg, D. The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

    This book touches on the development of humor, from people viewing it as a rather negative behavior into something sought after. Wickberg also gives examples of expressions related to humor, and explains their background.

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