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The Humor Quotient Newsletter
Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1998, Winona, MN 55987
Vitalist Humor and Health Attitudes
[As announced in HQN last time, articles will appear from time to time on vitalist humor leading to a celebration of the Centennial of Henri Bergson’s “Le rire” in 2000. Experimentation in vitalist humor has begun in and around Winona State University. This represents a first report on that research.]
Across the street from the Winona State Campus lies Central Lutheran Church, among whose members have been several WSU presidents and many WSU faculty. Each year, Central Lutheran Church Women hold a pre-Christmas, handicraft bazaar. CLCW agreed in 1997 to conduct a humor experiment with WSU researchers in conjunction with this bazaar.
The experiment included a new Vitalist Humor Test modeled on the Humor Quotient Test, each of 12 questions asking respondents to choose the funnier of two vitalist jokes.
A separate sociological and affective survey stressed health issues. Most prominently, respondents were asked what they say to themselves in the midst of health crises. Sixteen answers were suggested with a blank for any additional possibilities. Choices ranged from “Count your blessings” and “ God is in control” to “This too will pass” and “Serves me right.” Respondents were asked to circle their most repetitive response to health difficulties and to check additional responses they employ.
It should be emphasized that the sample group at Central Lutheran was anything but a cross-section of Americans. First and most obviously, the vast majority were Lutheran, though as a Norwegian-American congregation, Central has prided itself on good lefse that brings in nonmembers. Second, the bazaar has been going on for many decades, and it is particularly frequented by retired members of the congregation. A high percentage of the respondents are, therefore, septuagenarian and octogenarian. They are also people in generally fine health, probably much better health than their peers nationwide, and they seem to be people who like to get out to socialize even as Minnesota weather is deteriorating. Men are well-represented but are typically husbands of CLCW members.
As researchers, we appreciated that CLCW cooperation allowed us to sample a population whose health has been by many objective measures better than average, longevity itself being a key litmus. The bazaar respondents are self-sorted from the broader spectrum of Americans and, therefore, should have less variability that might obscure relationships between humor and health attitudes. In such a ground-breaking research initiative, we were anxious to show that a vitalist humor test could in fact establish some high-confidence relationship between health attitude and vitalist humor. A carefully controlled and limited sample of healthy Americans seemed most appropriate.
The Two Voices of Vitalism
The Vitalist Humor Test (VHT) itself is an enhanced version of the prototype tested in cognitive settings at Winona State and at St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN). VHT considers four types of vitalist humor as the Humor Quotient Test considers four types of classical humor of the mind.
HQN Editor: Paul Grawe, Department of English, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987
Tel: (507) 457-5443; E-mail: PGRAWE@VAX2.WINONA.MSUS.EDU
Vitalist humor as defined by Bergson is a response of the living against the dead and menacing surrounding universe. Bergson reinterpreted classical Gotcha humor as death-defying and laughing off the mechanical encrusted upon the living. Bergson’s favorite joke, the old man slipping on the banana peel, seems to be outside political correctness today, but Bergson argues that it is laughable because we are laughing at the mechanical and time-decayed as the representative of death encrusted on the still-living.
For our purposes, this is a good example of the defiant voice of vitalism, defying death and its minions and so championing life.
About 50 years after Bergson, the American philosopher, Susanne Langer suggested that we also laugh at the extremely alive. This is what makes babies, puppies, and kittens laughable as well as endearing. Langer’s own key example is a fish, part of whose tail was lopped off in an early confrontation with a piranhaesque predator. The fish is alive and still swimming, though admittedly swimming with a distinct list. The life force has not only kept the fish alive, but has also allowed this ungainly adaptation, which is laughable not primarily as defying death but as celebrating infinitely adaptable life.
For our purposes, the listing fish is a good example of the affirmational voice of vitalism, celebrating life even in the midst of hardship, distortion, pain, and abnormality.
For the purposes of this article and the experimental results it describes, we need not concern ourselves with four types of vitalist humor but only with the fact that the VHT in each question pitted a joke representing the affirmational voice of the type with a joke representing the defiant voice of the same type.
Hypotheses and Counterintuitive Results
Preliminarily, we might hypothesize that good health is related to the voice of vitalist humor, and, given predilections toward positivism, we might hypothesize that a healthy audience is more likely to appreciate the affirmational voice than the defiant voice.
Accepting the CLCW participants as representing people of better than average health, the preliminary results of our testing do not support such a hypothesis. There was, in fact, a group-wide preference for the defiant form over the affirmational despite the test’s attempt to find “equally funny” representatives of both voices. This is perhaps the result of
the test designers’ relative inexperience in dealing with vitalist humor compared to humor of the mind.
A second possibility, however, is that the largely older population sampled is also, by that fact, more challenged in health and more directly confronted by death than a younger audience would be. Perhaps as we age and health and death issues become more real to us, the defiant voice becomes more appreciated than earlier in life. (Anecdotally, note young people’s ability to delight in puppies, kittens, and the like with their strong affirmational voice.)
Plans to norm the VHT against Winona State traditional college-aged students next year are currently being made, and we expect to report in HQN as that evidence accumulates.
A second test was conducted which asked if respondents’ preference for the defiant or the affirmational voice was at all related to their health attitudes, specifically their self-consoling thoughts in the midst of health challenges.
At Central Lutheran, the overwhelmingly most common self-consoling thought in health crises was to “count your blessings,” 82% indicating its preference to all other responses. It can be assumed that this response has theological bases in Lutheranism, including the chorus much favored in the older generation, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One.” This response was so universal that the problem for research is having enough non-Counting Blessing responses to say anything significant.
However, with a total of 49 participants 9 of whom did not choose the Count Your Blessings option, a significant result appeared nevertheless. All of those not choosing the option were in the medial to slightly above medial range of affirmational versus defiant humor responses (p <.03 ). Perhaps more importantly, all of the extreme affirmational and defiant respondents counted their blessings.
As a very preliminary result, this suggests that vitalist humor differences, at a minimum, are indeed related to attitudes toward health and, therefore, may be a promising line of inquiry for the relationship between humor and health itself. It must be reemphasized that the results cited here are from a deliberately non-representative group of Americans and that results will likely vary widely between such specially-sorted samples.
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