Amusement is the emotional reaction to humor. This can be something that is intended to be humorous, like when someone tells a good joke or when a friend dresses up in a ridiculous costume. But it can also be something that you find funny that was not intended to be humorous, like when you read a sign with a spelling error that turns it into an ironic pun.
For millennia, philosophers and scholars have been attempting to explain what exactly it is that makes something funny. This has led to several different theories. Nowadays, the most widely accepted one is the Incongruity Theory, which states that something is amusing if it violates our standards of how things are supposed to be. For example, Charlie Chaplin-style slapstick is funny because it violates our norms of competence and proper conduct, while Monty Python-style absurdity is funny because it violates reason and logic.
However, not every standard or norm violation is necessarily funny. Violations can also evoke confusion, indignation, or shock. An important condition for amusement is that there is a certain psychological distance to the violation. One of the ways to achieve this is captured by the statement ‘comedy is tragedy plus time’. A dreadful mistake today may become a funny story a year from now. But it can also be distant in other ways, for instance, because it happened to someone you do not know, or because it happens in fiction instead of in real life. Amusement also needs a safe and relaxed environment: people who are relaxed and among friends are much more likely to feel amused by something.
A violation and sufficient psychological distance are the basic ingredients for amusement, but what any one person find funny will depend on their taste and sense of humor. There are dozens of ‘humor genres’, such as observational comedy, deadpan, toilet humor, and black comedy.
Amusement is contagious: in groups, people are more prone to be amused and express their amusement more overtly. People are more likely to share amusement when they are with friends or like-minded people. For these reasons, amusement is often considered a social emotion. It encourages people to engage in social interactions and it promotes social bonding.
Many people consider amusement to be good for the body and the soul. By the end of the 20th century, humor and laughter were considered important for mental and physical health, even by psychoneuroimmunology researchers who suggested that emotions influenced immunity. This precipitated the ‘humor and health movement’ among health care providers who believed that humor and laughter help speed recovery, including in patients suffering from cancer1). However, the evidence for health benefits of humor and laughter is less conclusive than commonly believed2.
Amusement is a frequent target of regulation: we down-regulate it by shifting our attention to avoid inappropriate laughter, or up-regulate it by focusing on a humorous aspect of a negative situation. Interestingly, amusement that is purposefully up-regulated has been found to have the same beneficial physical and psychological effects as the naturally experienced emotion.
Amusement has a few clear expressions that emerge depending on the intensity of the emotion. When people are mildly amused, they tend to smile or chuckle. When amusement intensifies, people laugh out loud and tilt or bob their head. The most extreme bouts of amusement may be accompanied by uncontrollable laughter, tears, and rolling on the floor.
Most cultures welcome and endorse amusement. Many people even consider a ‘good sense of humor’ as one of the most desirable characteristics in a partner. At the same time, most cultures have (implicit) rules about what is the right time and place for amusement. For example, displays of amusement may be deemed inappropriate in situations that demand seriousness or solemness, such as at work or during religious rituals.