Like a few of the other aesthetic virtues, wittiness is not absolutely essential in order for one to live a full and happy life. Those of us who have made wit and humor an important part of our lives, however, will have a hard time imagining having a satisfying life without it. While both the exact definition of wit and the amount of it one will want to have in their life will change from person to person, it is less controversial to claim that everyone benefits from including some humor in their days. In fact, chances are that it takes an unusual person who in fact truly doesn’t need it to be fulfilled.

Wit is the basic ability to understand the humor that can be found in their everyday lives and also the humor created by those around them whether it be through jokes or good-natured ribbing. Wit also includes the ability to participate in humor, although the ability to enjoy humor with others remains the most essential attribute to basic social functioning. Developing a sense of humor is something that everyone can work on, but while everyone can improve their ability to be humorous themselves, one should not necessarily make it a life-long goal to be the funniest person in the room. Being humorous is, in part, a natural, inherent quality that people should not expect to easily perfect, nor should they base their life’s satisfaction on their ability to make others laugh. The focus on this article will be using the quality of wit as a virtue to improve one’s enjoyment of life, with improving one’s own abilities with humor as an incidental side-benefit.

The next question is how one can improve upon their wit? Those who have a hard time enjoying humor sometimes have a hard time letting themselves "loosen up" in the way that is required, especially if the humor is risqué or potentially offensive in some fashion. Some of you reading this might think that I’m blithely giving in to a cheap prejudice, but there is some merit to this line of thinking. Most forms of art and entertainment, if not all forms, depend on the managed build-up and release of nervous tension—that’s what makes it feel so good to laugh. Emotional dramas build up the tension and then release it slowly in a satisfying, tear-jerking ending. Romances build up the tension between two lovers and the obstacles in their path, and then release that tension in a (hopefully) satisfying way when the couple finds love together at last. Many horror films and comedies tend to constantly build up the tension and release it in a sudden rush, to then quickly start building it up again; horror uses the tension of fear, comedies use humor. The genres you enjoy, whether it be high-dramas, romances, horror flicks, or goof-ball comedies depend upon your personality and which genres you are willing to open yourself up to so you can be in the right frame of mind to enjoy their unique method for building tension. If you are too disturbed or offended by the material in a horror flick, for instance, the dramatic build-up and scare is going to leave you with an unpleasant sensation (or leave you bored). With humor, you have to be open not only to the material and subject matter, but you have to be open and ready to laugh and enjoy yourself.

Most people have a sense of humor to some degree—human beings can hardly get by without it any more (if they ever could). The question for improving on the wit you already have is learning to be more open to the comic possibilities in life and the humor you will likely enjoy with your friends (and will want to). Note that I’m not suggesting that you try to force yourself to enjoy material or humor you happen to be uncomfortable with, but if you want to enjoy the release of nervous tension that can make you feel more relaxed and calm about life’s calamities, then you will need to be open to having a sense of humor about those very things that worry you or cause potential anxiety. This is where having that famous "sense of humor about yourself" comes in. Being able to laugh off those moments you have a slap-stick fumble with that fine china you’re carrying or when you say something bizarre or foolish in otherwise serious conversation will help keep you from carrying anxiety and nervous tension throughout your daily life. In older times, people held on to a Victorian nervousness about their respectability and with myriads of different taboo subjects, but in modern times there is little about our lives or ourselves we want to harbor this tension over anymore (note the popularity of jokes about sex, the king supreme of all nervous tension). Whether or not you agree with this recent trend, and perhaps there are things you do believe should remain serious and locked tight (let’s not pretend our society is free of taboos either), anyone will benefit from getting some of this tension from off of their shoulders.

How does knowing all of this help you develop your own wit? Well, hopefully when I suggest that you loosen up, you might now take me more seriously. And those of you that take yourselves very seriously might hopefully begin to see a benefit to having a laugh about themselves or even a topic that pretty dear to them—because in the post-modern comic world, being referred to in derisive humor is often a compliment rather than a token of poor esteem. Understanding the value of taking things lightly every once in a while and being open to practicing this light-heartedness will become the best and most long-lasting methods you use to improve upon your wit.

Otherwise, the only thing you can do is to try and expose yourself to humor and wit more frequently. While I don’t suggest you do anything that makes you uncomfortable, you might try opening yourself up to different forms and genres of comedy you might consider a little too silly, serious, bellow, or above you. Try to go see what your like-minded friends are enjoying and see these performances with those same friends. When we are children, we learn humor and laughter from imitating the laughter of others to some degree, and it is still easier for us in adult-hood to laugh and enjoy ourselves in a group setting (that’s probably why so many people send funny emails in a world that is becoming isolated by technology).

Finally I should say that I, for one, am very bad at faking laughter; if I don’t find something funny most people know about it. While faking amusement seems to be an important part of getting along, simply trying to laugh more open (genuinely, hopefully) can make us more open to humor and wit in our lives in general. Just as the act of smiling more can make one happier, the act of exposing our bodies to more laughter can make us more and more susceptible to enjoying wit. Sometimes we subconsciously (or consciously) suppress our laughter at times for various reasons—whether to appear more serious or whatever. Getting out of the habit to suppress these moments in general can open up our lives and our souls to the therapeutic medicine of good, hearty laughs.


  • Write Down your New Goals: While this is suggested in general, for a virtue that is so vaguely defined and such an inherent part of who you are that changing this for the better can be so difficult you will need all the help you can get. Getting your new goals from your mind, through your arm, and down on paper will do a lot for making this goal a more prominent figure on your mental horizon. Trying to be more open to laughing at yourself is a good goal, but you’re likely to forget to do it in the heat of the moment unless you do work to constantly bring this goal in mind. You should reread these goals and all the goals you are making in this program every morning.
  • Stop Covering Your Laugh: Sometimes people are embarrassed to laugh big. Don’t let yourself ever feel shame over your own laughter (well, except in very particular situations). If you are ever in a situation where you are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe, make sure you enjoy every moment of it.
  • Choose to Laugh: If you are ever in a situation where you wonder whether you should laugh or not, choose laughter unless you might truly offend someone if you do. If you are having a hard time opening yourself to humor and wit, it might be because of some internal censors that you can feel working at times like these.
  • Go to those Comedies: If you have a friend who enjoys comedies that you usually don’t participate in, try to make plans to start going out to the movies or wherever with that person more often. Try to go to these events prepared and expecting to laugh as this is usually one of the prerequisites needed to build up that nervous tension required to enjoy the comedy and have a good time. If you go to a comedy expecting to be bored and annoyed, then you will probably will have a laughless night unless the material is truly inspired.
  • Make that Joke: This refers to opening up your own sense of humor to others. Sometimes we think of a joke that we keep inside of ourselves either because we are afraid of getting embarrassed or because we think someone might get offended. If you know you have good concern, then go ahead and keep it in, but try to become more and more open to your own sense of humor in daily conversation.

Your Record

This is a virtue that is vague and hard to define. After reading this article, get a picture in your mind of what you and your personality would be like if you were open to including more wit in your life. Next, you have to be your own judge and mark yourself at "fault" whenever you stray too far from this imagined ideal, or every time you fail to take an opportunity to laugh at your predicament or to have a friendly laugh with someone else’s. When focusing on this virtue, use the activities up above as a guide for your own goals. While it is hard to be concrete with this virtue, do your best to come up with activities with clear steps and goals with measurable outcomes. Mark yourself at fault when you fail to complete the activities or meet your goals.


It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.

Oscar Wilde, Irish Poet, Novelist, and Dramatist

Wit is the only wall between us and the dark.

Mark van Doren, American Educator and Writer

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Ghandi, Indian Philosopher, Renown for His Practice of Non-Violent Protest

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It's jolted by every pebble on the road.

Henry Ward Beecher, American Congregational Minister

Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.

Bill Cosby, American Comedian, Actor, and Producer

Golden Mean

Unimaginativeness, uninventiveness

Recommended Reading

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff... and It's All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking over Your Life — by Richard Carlson

This popular series contains many meditations concerning being more easy-going. The premise is that most people take things very seriously that on closer inspection prove not to be worth that much worry.

Nine Thousand Miles To Kansas: Finding Humor Amid the Potholes Along the Road of Life — by Eleanor Scown

This book is a memoir about a Californian who is transplanted in Kansas for her husband's job. She believes in finding humor in everyday life, and this memoir reflects that attitude.

General Rules

Practice virtues daily so that they become ‘habits of the heart’.

Don‘t strive for perfection.

Never give up! Remember: even the greats have off days.

Rely on your intuition.

Avoid extremes. Strive to achieve the golden mean between excess and deficiency of a virtue.

Have fun and enjoy the program with humor and optimism.

I have wit in my work and a sense of humor, but I do not use irony in any way. John Zorn