HERBERT M. LEFCOURT Humor: The Psychology of Living Buoyantly New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2001, 220 pages (ISBN 0-306-46407-1, us$47.50, Hardcover) Reviewed by JOSEPH F. KESS
"The joyous heart is a good remedy, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." Proverbs 17:22, quoted in a chapter outlining the history of early conceptions of humour, may capture the thrust of the book in a way the title does not. The discussion does not focus on humour as the panacea for the difficulties that everyday life places in our path, but it does explore its virtues in helping humans cope with stress from both an evolutionary and a synchronic perspective. A dozen chapters deliver a learned inventory of facts and figures about humour from psychology and its interdisciplinary allies, as well as providing a very personal point of view.
Lefcourt traces the changing concerns of psychology, and the reason why the psychological study of humour has often been trivialized as an unlikely candidate for research support in the past. The author charts his own personal odyssey in the field, one in which he is drawn to the study of human strengths rather than human frailties. How does one come to accept the unacceptable, even control the uncontrollable? Humour seems to offer one avenue by which humans have come to cope, and effectively at that. It may be that Lefcourt is in the vanguard of a movement in which psychology will overcome its past preoccupation with a medical model of mental illness and deficit, and turn its attention to the positive, even optimistic, aspects of the human experience.
An early chapter sets us up for the remaining chapters by reminding us how we experience humour in everyday life. Verbatim anecdotes from students in previous seminars offer vignettes which allow the reader to grasp the situation vicariously and to see how and why the humour of the situation could have arisen. It is here that Lefcourt confides that his is a functionalist psychological perspective, and that he views humour as a characteristic that has been useful to our species. If the survival of a species is one of adaptation to circumstance, then humour may have been one of those evolutionary modifications that allowed us to both cope with unbearable circumstances and to draw closer to one another.
Perhaps this is why smiles and laughter occur in all human societies, although what elicits them is not universal and much that elicits laughter is not humourous. The fact of early onset in the maturational schedule, specific neurophysiological correlates, and reflections in closely related species only reinforces this assumption. The absence of verbal play notwithstanding, some higher order primates apparently display a sufficient awareness of self, a "theory of other minds," and the cognitive capacity to supply prerequisite underpinnings for humour. For humans, though, Lefcourt makes the crucial distinction between self-directed humour and hostile humour. The former is usually self-deprecating, even defensive, and encourages group solidarity; in contrast, hostile humour may cement in-group vs. outgroup identities, but if directed at one's fellows in the in-group, it can be ultimately divisive as others take cover for fear they will be the next target of ridicule.
just as with metalinguistic abilities, individual differences characterize children in their appreciation and use of humour. But the suggestion is that individuals with a good sense of humour are more likely to take an active stance toward their own life experiences, taking steps to alter unpleasant mood states instead of enduring them passively. Is it not therefore possible to infer that such individuals are less prone to let the negative effects of stressful life experiences roll right over them, without trying to ameliorate them in some way? Here one comes to the crux of the argument for most readers. Is humour, then, a coping strategy, ultimately devised in our evolutionary ramblings, as a protective cushion against the jagged impact of stressful experiences? …