Home All Funny You Said That! The Light and Dark Sides of Humor and Playfulness

Funny You Said That! The Light and Dark Sides of Humor and Playfulness

written by John Yeager 10 June 2009

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Office setWhen I show my students the slide of Steve Carell aka Michael Scott, the bumbling boss from The Office, most of them let out a big chuckle. In one episode he goes to corporate headquarters to interview for a higher position in the company. He evidently has the shadow strength of punctuality, as he shows up a day early for his meeting. However, on the next day, he enters the interview and is confronted with the first question: “What are your strengths, Michael?” With a pregnant pause, and then a wide-eyed grin, he answers, “I can tell you my weaknesses. Everybody in my office knows my weaknesses!”

Humor as a Strength and Pathway to Happiness

While Michael Scott is fodder for the humor of others, many young people use humor as a way of healthily engaging others. In a study we conducted with high school freshmen and seniors from the Midwest, we found that humor and playfulness, along with curiosity and humility, were predictors of pleasure as a pathway to happiness. This was consistent with research by Kahneman and his colleagues on laughing and smiling as part of the hedonic life.

In the study, we also found that humor was highly endorsed by students, along with kindness, love, integrity, and curiosity. This supports the claim by Nansook Park and Chris Peterson that humor, gratitude and love tend to be the most common traits among adolescents. We also found that male students endorsed humor more than female students. Research by Lampert and Ervin-Tripp shows that men tend to joke more than women.

Peterson suggests that there may be shadow sides to the way people exhibit their strengths. Humor can be both self-serving and other-directed, both highly inclusive and demeaning of others. The central question is, Who is the beneficiary of the humor?

Pie in Face The Shadow Side of Humor

The shadow side of a strength can occur because the strength is used to excess. Several years ago, one of my students, Jason, was dismissed from an athletic team for showing disrespect to other players and the head coach with constant, sarcastic humor. The young man was very upset with the coach’s decision and asked if he could speak with me. I knew full well that he was coming to see me for a “get out of jail card.” He hoped I’d advocate for him to be reinstated to the team.

What Jason had done was insensitive and selfish. I had to figure out a way to make the meeting as positive and productive as possible. When Jason entered my office, I asked him what his top strengths were, and he replied humor/playfulness, and leadership. This is consistent with feedback from his peers, who find him very likable and his sense of humor contagious. When properly motivated he was an exceptional leader. A smile came to his face when he spoke about how his humor comes alive at school – in the dorm, in the classroom, and on the football and lacrosse fields. He then grinned ear-to-ear about being “a funny guy,” and attracting others with his playfulness. However, in the recent athletic situation, his humor went to the dark side, and his leadership detracted from the ability of others to fulfill the team mission.

LacrosseI paused, and with a very serious look on my face, asked Jason, “Then, why are we here right now having this conversation? What happened?” There was another pause, and Jason meekly said that he took both his leadership and his humor to excess, to the dark side. At that moment, Jason realized that he was in control of his actions, of how he saw himself, and how others saw him. We spoke about how much enjoyment he derives from focusing his humor in service to others He began to realize that the players look up to him. He went to the head coach and explained how his strengths, as he put it, “went south.” The coach allowed him back on the team, and he became an unofficial leader for the remainder of the season.

When humor is a strength, the result will typically be felt by both self and others. With the shadow side of humor, others experience it as disrespect. The instructive use of humor comes in finding the fine line that divides its strength from its shadow!


E. Kahneman, E. Diener and N. Schwartz (eds) (1999). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.393-412). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Lampert, M., & Ervin-Tripp, S. M. (1998). Exploring paradigms: The study of gender and sense of humor at the end of the 20th century. In W. Ruch (Ed.), The Sense of Humor: Explorations of a Personality Characteristic. Mouton de Gruyter; illustrated edition, July 1, 2007.

Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Moral competence and character strengths among adolescents: The development and validation of the Values In Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth. Journal of Adolescence.

Yeager, J. (2006). Character Strengths and Well-Being Among Adolescents. Capstone Study – in partial fulfillment for the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology – University of Pennsylvania. This capstone project will soon be uploaded to Penn’s Scholarly Commons for easier access.

Michael Scott’s desk courtesy of watchwithkristin
Pie in face from Wikipedia article on Pieing
Lacrosse player courtesy of Hobart College vs Syracuse University – Mens Lacrosse (Set)

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Senia 10 June 2009 - 5:17 pm

John, my favorite of all your articles so far – and that’s saying a lot.

Really like the Jason part of the story. Neat.

Louis Alloro 11 June 2009 - 6:12 pm

Great article, John. The shadow side of humor is often stinging and hurtful. I’m wondering if social anxiety might be associated with the sarcasm. I know for me and my community, biting wit is appreciated, but there is certainly an upwards limit and a fine line between naughty and nice.

Someone recently said of my now deceased brother, “He was so funny – but he never made anyone feel badly to make a joke.” I was so moved by that account of him – just wanted to share.



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