What is Affiliative Humor and Why Should I Care?

June 8, 2023

Great question! When I was launching Laughter On Call in the Alzheimer’s space I’d often be asked about where the idea came from of bringing laughter to such a dark situation. The simple truth is, for me creating human connection through shared laughter, even against the toughest odds, is a reflex.

I’ve been trying to make people laugh since our family dinner table in 1974 when we moved from New York City to suburban Connecticut and everyone was depressed. I made clay finger puppets and imitated my parents and my sister, an exaggerated mirroring back of their gloom and doom with whiny, squeaky voices - usually planning a getaway, “If only we weren’t prisoners of these hands!” I was nine. Laughter being contagious, once my antics got a giggle out of one of them, the others couldn’t help but surrender to the silliness.

To this day nothing makes me happier than making people laugh, but, there is a method to my madness. I no longer subscribe to comedy that makes people feel badly. Sarcasm, insult comedy, poking fun at a person’s vulnerability, not for me. Maybe it’s my senior status, but I no longer find this funny. And if you’re managing people, caring for anyone facing illness, or trying to stay married, or get married for that matter, help yourself and avoid it.

Hence the introduction of “affiliative humor,” which given the popularity of Ted Lasso is having a moment. According to psychologist Rod Martin who broke humor down in to 4 categories in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2003, affiliative humor is used "to enhance one's relationships with others," and involves engaging in banter and cracking jokes with friends. The second one he identified is referred to as “self-enhancing humor,” also good for these times. This is where you improve your mood by finding humor in your situation. Television sitcoms – particularly more traditional ones – make great use of this – it’s in the name, “situation comedy.”

Loneliness is at an all-time high, so no one needs humor that is off-putting. Which is exactly what aggressive humor like sarcasm and put downs are designed to do, push people away.

And…guess what’s not funny? Dissecting humor in this way! Yet desperate times call for desperate measures. Even the toughest of us is feeling sensitive right now so the next time you want to land a zinger – try doing something silly instead and make everyone feel better.