The Psychology of Humor

An introduction to the mental side of comedy

Like many Harvard students I follow a very strategic set of guidelines when choosing what classes to take in a semester. Adhering to my strict requirement of having the word “war,” “sports,” or “film” appear in the course title of every class I take, I happily signed up for “Psychology of Sport” this semester. I quickly discovered that many of the key psychological concepts that we learn in this class can be applied not only to the field of athletic competition, but to any performance domain. I’ve made an effort to apply these psychological techniques to help me improve in my performance domain of humor writing. I thought I’d share with you my progress so far, and hopefully inspire some of you to try to improve the mental aspect of some common high-pressure areas for college students, such as academics, athletics, arts, Beirut, and flip cup.

You are probably wondering how I can possibly improve on my humor writing, considering that I am already the “Funniest Boy in the School,” as declared by the trophy that I was awarded on “Everyone Wins a Trophy Day” in Mrs. Duffy’s second grade class. Well, it may shock you to learn that not everyone thinks my humor writing is all that and a bag of potato chips, as evident by the hordes of negative emails that I receive that are of similar quality and length as a typical senior thesis. But I don’t take these critical messages too seriously, as I’ve found that the authors of these epistles aren’t too bright, often misspelling “Eric” as “Erik,” “Erick,” and “Jackass.” Nevertheless, I would like to reduce the amount of negative comments I receive about my writing, and there are some mental techniques I am using to help me.

One of the keys to optimizing performance is visualization. Prior to attempting a task, it can be very useful to visualize yourself succeeding. Before writing one of my columns, for instance, I visualize myself defeating all odds and accomplishing my ultimate aspiration as a humor writer: finishing my article before the deadline. By imagining myself completing this goal I am more likely to accomplish it, although admittedly these visualization sessions generally deteriorate into hour long naps where I end up visualizing baseball cards and candy bars in my dreams.

In my class we have also learned that it is important to have mental rehearsals of unusual circumstances that may occur during performance. You must prepare for adversity by imagining yourself being faced with difficulties and overcoming them. For example, athletes often visualize themselves trying to compete while being injured. I visualize myself trying to write my column with a broken keyboard. I then envision myself overcoming the fact that my “s” key has mysteriously stopped working and still managing to produce a respectable article. Thi$ i$ a really effective $trategy that will help you prepare for adver$ity.

My class has also spent time discussing the importance of “Flow” in performance domains. Flow is a mental and physical state where you feel like nothing can stop you and everything comes easily. Flow, or getting “in the zone” is important in achieving success in athletics, and it’s equally as important when writing humor. I’ve heard other humor writers describe their Flow as having the feeling that everything you write is funny and fits seamlessly into the piece as a whole. I consider myself experiencing Flow when I have written two consecutive sentences without a spelling error.

Another important mental technique that can help with optimizing performance is goal setting. We learned that there are several different types of goals, and that you should try to set a target in each of these categories. The first type is called “outcome goals,” where you focus on a result of an event. My outcome goal for all of my columns is to have my readers laugh more at my writing than they do at my photo. The next category is “performance goals,” which should focus on comparing yourself with your past performances. It is critical that you concentrate this goal on yourself only, directing your thoughts solely on your own performance and not on the performance of other competitors. For instance, my performance goal for each column is to have it be funnier than my last piece. I want it be so funny that when everyone reads it they think about how much awesomer and cooler I am than all of the other Crimson columnists.

The final goal type is called a “process goal.” This goal should focus on the actions you must take during performance in order to achieve success. The process goal that I set before writing each column is to make sure to include a predetermined “funny” word that will surely enhance the humor of my piece. I choose a new word for every column, and it must be used at all costs even if it makes no sense in the context of the article and leaves the readers scratching their heads. Underpants.

Eric A. Kester ’08 is an anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.