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Gender and Age Differences in Sense of Humor

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 5287 words Published: 26th Mar 2019

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Investigations into the psychology of humor began at least as early as Freud (1916, 1928 & Eysenck, 1942). Most of the early researchers who worked on sense of humor focused on personality and the appreciation of humor. Most research on humor is carried out in a number of areas in psychology, including the cognitive (What makes something funny?), developmental (when do we develop a sense of humor?), and social (how is humor used in social interactions?).  Much of the current research explores such topics as hope, coping, courage, and optimism (Lefcourt, 2001). Many developmental aspects of humor studies have already been conducted that concentrate on the early part of life through adulthood. Yet, very little research is devoted to understanding the multifaceted aspects of gender and humor differences and experiences inclusive of age measures.  Future studies cannot ignore the possible cohort effects that may influence differences in humor production and humor appreciation.  The paper will briefly explore the most prominent humor theory, gender functions and gender differences of humor appreciation, gender divide in humor and the effect of ageism and humor.

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As a result of the intermittent research on humor beyond adulthood into old age, this writer became interested in the multiple dimensions of the aging experience and the many questions that remain unanswered surrounding the differences in how elderly males and elderly females characterize themselves with regard to the value and usefulness of humor. The paper will conclude with a short self-descriptive Multidimensional Sense of Humor questionnaire that will measure personal sense of humor and differences of humor uses in elderly women and men.


The faces of aging and the lived experiences of the elderly for the most part have been obscured by stereotypes and myths.  Sense of humor is known to be an important factor to well being across the life-span. While there are numerous studies of purpose in life, and almost as many studies of various elements of sense of humor, no previous empirical studies were found that assessed both senses of humor and purpose in life. From research that has been done to date, it would seem that the two concepts are related to a number of elements of psychological health in that those individuals who lead the good life presumably have the ability to laugh at life and themselves while maintaining a high level of personal purpose.

We know humor can serve many functions. Do all of these functions change throughout the lifespan or do some change more than others?  Humor normally serves primarily solidarity-based, power-based or psychological needs. The psychological needs category comes under the function of “defend and cope”. Some functions are more important to the elderly population than to young adults such as coping mechanisms, for example.  Psychological theorist such as Maslow (1954) and Valliant, (1993) added mental health and well-being to the definition of humor suggesting that psychological health relates to the presence of certain kinds of adaptive humor that is non-hostile, philosophical and self-deprecating while remaining self-accepting.  

Beyond the physical and psychosocial, the journey into aging can through humor become self-transcendent and deeply spiritual in the face of physical decline. Research has shown that as many people age, their well-being and spirituality deepens in other aspects of late life, such as psychological coping and the experience of death and dying. While certain cognitive abilities might impair humor production for elderly adults, research suggests understanding of jokes is not affected.  Having this knowledge can provide valuable insights for aged care providers such as clergy, social workers, gerontologist and anyone whose life includes an elderly person. 

Thorson & Powell, (1991) argue personal sense of humor is multidimensional and that humans have a personal humor reserve that they call on as varying situations demand. Theoretically, sense of humor contains at least six elements: Recognition of oneself to be a humorous person; appreciation of humor itself; the acknowledgment of other people’s humor; laughter; perspective and coping. With regard to attitudes towards humor usage, elderly people have often taken advantage of humor’s benefits to cope with stressful situations in spite of numerous obstacles.

One of the most popular ways to measure opinions, perceptions and behaviors is using a Likert-type format (named after the creator and sociologist, Rensis Likert, 1932) that offers a wide range of answer options. The measurement of humor using self-report questionnaires has mainly been restricted to scales where sense of humor is considered as a unique construct. In these scales participants evaluate themselves on either overall sense or use of humor (e.g. the Situational Humor Response Questionnaire, (1984); and Martin & Lefcourt, (1983) Coping Humor Scale, or different humor behaviors such as humor creation and humor appreciation (e.g. the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale of Thorson and Powell, 1993). 

In a 1996 Thorson & Powell Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale (MSHS) conducted with 301 males and 311 females, ages 17-92, appreciation of humor and coping humor differed for older adults and remained uniform with younger respondents.  In a similar female/male survey ranging in age from 18-52, males scored much higher on humor creativity and social uses of humor, while females scored higher on coping humor.  Research conducted by Thorson & Powell (1993) states the aged and those nearest death fear humor the least. Perhaps humor is among the more adaptive mechanism the most successful older people have learned to use as a resource to draw upon during stressful situations. 

George Valliant (2004) in his book “Living well” describes humor as the most mature and the most elegant of the defense mechanism. Humor may increase appreciation of gains as well as provide ways of coping with losses and other negative circumstances that enable a person to age well (Vaillant, 1977).  Hypothetically speaking, based on those results it would appear uses of humor increase over time and the mature personality becomes more diverse over the course of a lifetime.  Sense of humor may be seen by some as no less different than any other abilities that become more diverse in late life.

Age, culture and gender differences can significantly influence communication style. Females tend to be supportive in their conversation style and use humor to create solidarity and healing.  They are more likely to share funny personal stories whereas male humor tends to be more exaggerated or clearly false, giving it a performance quality (Aries, 1976; Edelsly, 1981; Fishman, 1983; Maltz & Borker, 1983; Coates, 1986; Priesler, 1986, among others). In many studies, it has been shown humor is culturally grounded and that men and women have unique characteristics and differences in their preferences in types of humor. Sense of humor is cognitive as well as emotional, physical and biological all of which interact (Martin, 2007). Much of the research on humor and aging does not address many of these different aspects of humor.

Past studies that examined the relationship between humor and aging focus on only one of five prominent humor theories, the most popular is called the “incongruity theory” based on two incompatible parts, which is the difference between what we expect and what we actually see. The idea is that we laugh at things that seem out of place because we find that funny. A good example would be seeing a bear walking into a bar because this runs against our expectations so we find that funny. According to this theory humor can be appreciated when the incongruity is resolved (Martin, 2007; Suls, Goldstein, McGhee, 1972 pp 81-100). Incongruity theory tests for humor comprehension and humor production ability.   Older adults have greater difficulty with humor comprehension due to age-related cognitive decline in comparison to young adults.  Due to the potential physical and psychological benefits of humor further study may be necessary to clarify the role of cognition in humor comprehension. 

Sense of humor has its own unique characteristics and differences and in any social situation humor is present and the nature of what is perceived as amusing varies widely among individuals, societies, gender, and cultures.  When Kruse and Prazak (2006) plainly acknowledge that “perception of humor is unique to the individual” and is a “subjective perceptual experience,” it would seem by attempting to determine what is humorous for a group; that statement defies the individual, subjectivity, and personal nature of humor.  People of every age group and culture enjoy producing humor on a daily basis.  Sometimes a laugh, at least for the moment can be everything.

Understanding the contextual meanings of humor in older adults is important. When seeking to understand humor it may be difficult to differentiate the ability to perceive, create and comprehend (cognitive) a joke, from the emotional response of laughter and well-being.  Age related declines in cognition and generational differences in humor may contribute to reduced humor comprehensions which suggest appreciation may depend upon having the necessary cognitive resources to comprehend the joke (Schaier & Cicirelli, 1976).  Indeed past work has found that age differences in humor appreciation have strong ties to age differences in conservatism.

Differences in socially appropriate and inappropriate perceptions of what is actually funny or not partially depends upon the type of beliefs the individuals hold, or the humor style preferences may adapt to match each life stage.  Humor style preferences can shape judgments about social acceptability says Goel & Dolan, 2007.  The makeup of humor is something that does change across generations. For example, Ruch, McGhee, & Hehl, 1990 state there may be generational differences in personality factors such as ones temperament and openness to experience humor. What is lacking according to (Berk 2001; Capps 2006; Dziegielewski et al, 2004), are studies of older adults perceptions of humor in the context of their day-to-day life experiences.  Psychologist Rod Martin and his colleagues studied humor and developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire that identifies four types of humor experienced in different life contexts.

Older adults in their own description recognize four types of humor about their day-to-day lives:  affiliative, self-enhancing, self-defeating and authentic.  Each humor style will create very different impressions and have different impact on others.  Adaptive styles include self-enhancing and affiliative, that protects the self and is used to bring people together and create a sense of fellowship; happiness and well-being.  Maladaptive styles are self-defeating and aggressive, mainly used to avoid dealing constructively with problems. A study published in the 2014 Journal of Psychology and Aging seems to show that older people overall do not find the aggressive style of humor, laughing at the expense of others (think, Curb your Enthusiasm and The Office) very funny.  Researchers are not sure why aggressive humor was not funny, but they surmise it could be because many older people prefer a gentler, kinder type of self deprecating humor seen in shows from their own era such as the “Golden Girls” or it could be due to the emotional and physical setbacks as we age that change what we find funny. Whether this trend continues will need to be examined further.

For older adults, humor is a powerful coping mechanism that contributes to mood improvement and can improve their ability to hope for something better in spite of overwhelming circumstances.   When considering sense of humor, or humor style, the evidence suggests that the self-enhancing humor style focuses on using humor to cope, and is the dimension of sense of humor worth training.  Authentic humor is having the ability to laugh at oneself and all of life’s unforeseen circumstances which support a positive sense of self older adults need to manage the psychological impact of losses that come with aging, such as declining health status (Damianakis & Marziali, 2010).  A 2003 Canadian study of humor in older adults (average age 73) at Baycrest Centre of Geriatric Care has found that appreciation and emotional reaction to humor do not change with age. Within an interpersonal context, expressing and appreciating (i.e. the affective or emotional response) humor such as laughing and smiling contributes to maintaining social connections.

The purpose of the study was to determine the sources of humor and gender differences and similarities of elderly males and females.  In 2017, the writer conducted face-to-face interviews consisting of seventy-five elderly adults age 62 and older who voluntarily completed the survey questionnaire after a brief presentation of the studies objective to the centers administrator.  The humor questionnaire was created by utilizing other humor surveys and from a review of the literature.  The sample consisted of 45 women and 31 men. After a short explanation of the study and the rights of the participants the questionnaire was administered (in some cases the questions were read to participants).  The humor statements consisted of thirteen questions based on a 4 point Likert Scale format of Agree/Disagree.  The interviews took place at numerous Adult Daycare Centers, Senior Activity centers and senior apartment complexes in San Francisco, CA.  The results will provide insight involving data gathered from the twelve self-reported questionnaire statements developed specifically to understand gender differences and characteristics of humor uses in the elderly population. 

Humor Questionnaire

Scale: (A) Strongly Agree (B) Mildly Agree (C) Strongly Disagree (D) Mildly Disagree

       On the questionnaire participants circled (1) Female and (2) Male

  • Older men and women (A) sense of humor is one of the most important traits in a mate.
  • Older men (A) Women (B) laughing even in difficult situations is second most important factor in aging well; coping with problems
  • Older men (B) prefer aggressive humor (poking fun at others)
  • Older women (A) prefer kinder gentler type humor.
  •  Women (A) sense of humor is an attractive trait in selecting a mate,  Men (D)
  • Older men (A) they poke fun at silly things people do
  • Older women (B) they poke fun at silly things people do
  • Older men and women (A) men have a better sense of humor
  • Older men and women (A) on general humor as being relevant for men
  • Older men (D) on general humor as being relevant for women
  • Older women (A) humor is important for women  
  • Older women and older men (A) spontaneous things made them laugh
  • Older men and women (A) laughing at oneself is a healthy sign

Many of the older adults in this study reported that humor helps them maintain a more positive attitude while bringing about better understanding and awareness to their lives.  One 86- year old female participant said “when I laugh, I feel younger, more energetic and happier,” An elderly male said “when you lose your sense of humor, you lose your footing (he borrowed the phrase from a Jack Nicholson movie).  In another interview with a delightfully funny 88- year old Asian woman, she said: “every day I am alive gives me hope to laugh another day”.  From the interview results, humor in old age appears to be an essential skill for the enjoyment of late life in both men and women.  I found it surprising to learn, however, that both sexes strongly agree men have a better sense of humor. Women rated the role and value of humor as having relatively high importance for women, whereas men rated humor as having very little importance for women.  Is it possible older men may have responded more from a stereotypical attitude regarding older female oriented humor? Research suggests this type of male response perpetuates rather than challenges stereotypes about the humorless female.

In terms of how these differences may have developed, humor style between men and women may be both biological and social. Though there is a fairly clear dividing line between men and negative humor styles and women and positive humor styles, the discrepancies found could indicate another factor may be at work. Women’s traditional gender roles and speech style shape how women’s humor is perceived which may have contributed to the gender divide in humor. Research shows that styles of speech and humor are clearly associated with certain groups, such as those of men and women. In conclusion, while some of the results may be surprising this could be an area for further exploration. The results suggest that elderly men and women do agree on the overall importance humor and laughter has in daily life.

Health-care providers in both community and institutional settings must have an understanding of what older adults perceive as humorous and need to be made aware of the benefits for older adults of experiencing humor in different life contexts. The older adult population of today is significantly different than the older adult populations of yesterday and of tomorrow.  Senior centers have long been important community resources for older adults and their families but to stay relevant they must adjust to the changing needs of their client base.  Humor is important as a “social lubricant” a connection between self and others (Morreall, 1991). Humor is a free commodity and has no side effects; therefore it is useful as a coping mechanism.  The ability to find humor in everyday situations as a source of humor seems to be an inner strength that helps this population to feel hopeful when faced with the stressors of life.

An important aspect of studying humor in older adults can be a useful tool in assisting professionals that wish to develop programs and activities beyond bingo games at senior community centers, daycare centers, assisted living facilities and residential care facilities.  Involving older adults in the program creation can also serve as a motivator. Clearly, humor is a subjective perceptual experience.  Healthcare professionals must continue to learn more about the risks and benefits of humor and laughter on health for older adults. A big reason for the generation gap in humor is that as we age, we experience a variety of physical and emotional setbacks, declining cognitive faculties, coping with the inevitable challenges of growing old and the losses of friends who pass away.

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To develop a credible effective program for the health and well-being of the elderly based on the importance of humor, laughter and happiness knowing the source of humor that most likely would result in laughter is essential before humor can be used effectively as a therapeutic intervention when caring for older adults. Rotton and Shats (1996) concluded when designing therapeutic intervention humor inclinations must be considered otherwise exposure to material that fails to be funny to the individual can have harmful effects.  Creating a humor therapy program can be an effective intervention for enhancing happiness, life satisfaction and reducing loneliness for older adults in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior activity centers.  Research on the health related benefits of humor and laughter is well known and more senior centers and adult facilities would be wise to incorporate humor and laughter intervention into their service delivery programs (Cousins, 1989; Erdman 1993; Lemma).

It is important to have numerous opportunities to laugh each day, particularly for older adults who feel a sense of hopelessness.  Life in residential care can be challenging for residents and staff. One way to foster humor is through positive social interaction at senior centers and assisted living facilities, for example.  One Australian study brought a troupe of clowns and comedians to a long-term nursing facility where they told jokes, played games and performed funny skits for the patients. The staff reported that participants were more positive and happier.  Professionals working with older adults could establish and facilitate humor support groups and humor therapy services where participants can share funny stories. For those who enjoy entertaining, they could invite comics, clowns, and entertainers to the center or facility, including in-house entertainers who would like to perform as part of a variety show. This is an ideal way to acknowledge and highlight older people’s talents and skills. 

In addition, participants can be active in incorporating humor in their day to day activities. Some suggestive interventions for example, include creating a joke newsletter; providing humor carts to distribute funny books or videos of favorite comedians, or plan “laugh activities” and “fun days”, all of which encourages joyful interaction between staff and residents.  Gerontologists need to educate administrators and staff about the benefits of offering a wide variety of mentally stimulating activities at various skill levels and people interacting opportunities particularly with younger people.  Last, because a small number of men live in assisted living facilities and attend senior centers, little is known about their hopefulness, humor, and laughter so special attention should be paid to their sources of laughter, preferred activities and skill levels to provide corresponding opportunities (Westburg, 2003).

For residents and participants at senior centers diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Elder-clown visits are a promising new intervention that may improve therapeutic care. Studies noted that residents exhibited less agitation and improved staff-resident relationship. Talking to older individuals and to their family members is another great way to learn about their personal interest and what they enjoyed doing in the past.  I would look for ways to individualize the experience by “simulating the activity”.  For example, if the person enjoyed going on cruises in the past, but is no longer capable, I would re-create the scene to look like a cruise ship and rent a cruise video of their favorite destination to bring the experience to life.  Roper (2012), states therapeutic activities may also fit into more than one specific category. Pet therapy, music therapy, walking clubs, gardening and art events are examples of physical activities.  The ability to laugh for social communication is readily lost by dementia patients, at the onset of their illness.  The ability may vary by the person which is a developmental decline not a deliberate move. Over time, the ability to laugh and smile disappears in most dementia patients, but it is important to note that not all forms of laughter and smiling are equally reduced.  Because those with dementia are impaired by their illness, they can easily feel isolated. Thus, a feeling that unites them, or provides some sort of bond, with their family and the community can be very beneficial.

When I decided to explore humor and aging as a topic for my capstone project, I learned during research that humor is everywhere, for example laughter is one of the first things you do as a newborn, and if lucky it will be the last thing you do when you die of old age. Psychotherapists and other caregivers currently employ humor and laughter as tools to promote and maintain health, for intervention and rehabilitation tools and for a host of maladies and illnesses related to stress and lifestyle. As stated by Bertrand Russell, ‘Laughter is the most inexpensive and most effective wonder drug, it is a universal medicine’. Humor has many styles and can be found in almost any situation, on any occasion.  Of all the emotions, humor may be more researched than pride, regret and shame.

As I probed further into the role of humor in the health and well-being of the elderly population, I realized that humor influences many of our daily decisions, including advertising, movies we watch, television shows, soul mates and the books we read and I became more fascinated with the humor differences in the lived experience of elderly women and men.  Upon discovering how limiting and lacking research on the subject of humor differences was for the 62-90 age groups, frustration had clearly set in.  In light of the scarce research, I decided to develop my own humor study with the hopes of getting answers to how elderly people see the benefits of laughter/humor in their everyday lives.  Prior to doing any research, I had not given much thought to how humor may impact aging. Since completing this project, I have a better appreciation of humor as a valuable tool for achieving psychological health and well-being.  In the same way that developing a better understanding of language comprehension has led to an improvement in language instruction, the psychological study of humor may lead to an improvement in humor studies.  Providing therapeutic interventions that promote happiness and life satisfaction is necessary for survival among older adults. This is a model that can be replicated in every setting, including in the home with the caregiver.  I do not wish to make universal claims about the patterns of elderly female and male humor. Rather this report can be used as groundwork for investigating further gender and sense of humor differences in the elderly population which has been lacking in current research.    

When I decided to pursue the field of Gerontology, my goal was to learn and understand the many aspects involved in the aging process and in turn apply that knowledge to assist and relieve the depersonalization many elderly people feel. Working at the grassroots level to affect change in programs and services for older adults continues to be where my interest lies. However, after researching through humor literature specific to benefits for the elderly, I believe there is a great need to incorporate humor therapy into service delivery programs not only to counter the health affects loneliness and depression can engender in the elderly, but for the overall improvement of the social and psychological health and well-being. My hope is that with a greater understanding of the role humor plays in the lives of elderly people those who work with this population will open their eyes to another dimension of aging and the fact that everyone, no matter his or her age can benefit from a good laugh now and again. 


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