Understanding Humor

When one thinks about having a sense of humor, one usually thinks about someone who makes funny jokes, or at least can appreciate them and laugh when appropriate when watching comedies. The definition of humor according to the Roman Virtues is defined instead as "ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and friendliness." One might think of what is described more as one of being friendly, polite, and kind, but it is a little more than that. Friendly and polite people might well be easy to get along with and all-around good people, but they are not necessarily "open" people.

Open people are eager to share themselves with those around them and are more liable to make new friendships, share ideas and stories about their lives with others, and also be more willing to initiate conversations with acquaintances and strangers. Having an "ease of manner," on the other hand, isn't too far off from our idea of someone with with a sense of humor should be like. A person with an ease of manner will not insist on being serious all of the time, and in fact be lighthearted and easy going most of the time. If he or she is offended then that person will be more likely to blow or "laugh" it off. People with an ease of manner tend to be the ones who have a good sense of humor anyway, so this is where this roman virtue most clearly links with the modern idea of humor.

Now let me make this clear: having an ease of manner is an important virtue to living a happy, people-centric life (at least in Western society, speaking as a Westerner). While it is beneficial to avoid letting people "get you down" by avoiding overly negative criticism, I think the greater majority of people are just too sensitive to the things people do and say. In fact, many people are so sensitive to real and perceived offenses that they virtually lose all control and lash out either physically or verbally. Now, here is the greatest secret that most people never seem to fully grasp: No one is ever going to like every aspect of who you are or every aspect of your personality. Given enough time talking about you, even your best friends and most trusted family members will say something about you that isn't totally positive or life-affirming. No matter how much they care about your feelings, given enough home-cooked meals they will make some face or other signal of disapproval indicating your most recent creation was less than satisfactory. No matter how perfect you are and how well you treat them, given enough time with you they will find some points to criticize you on (even the ones you don't want to be criticized on!). Now that you have learned this deep, horrific secret of life, get over it.

You can't be a perfect person to or for anyone, and if you expect others to believe you are this person you are only going to hurt them and hurt yourself. If you try to force anyone to see you in this light, whether it be by intimidation, abandonment, or whatever, then you are very possibly being abusive—don't deny this outright, you are not a bad person until you ignore the harm you do to others. Under this virtue of "humor", instead you should be open to forgiving those who hurt your sensibilities or who make an "unfortunate" comment. You should be open to admitting your own faults, heck, you should even have a sense of humor about them. If you can accomplish this, then your friendliness will have true and lasting value in your relationships. It is then that you will be willing to open up to them, and be willing to accept their reaction when you reveal yourself to them—under the condition that they love and respect you for who you are, of course. You cannot expect them to never "betray" you, because even if they do have your same sensibilities, they will still eventually slip up and accidentally tell the truth.

Here are some activities to help you develop more Humor in regards to the Roman Virtues:


  • Install a Complaint Box: I don't suggest you literally hang a complaint box by your bedroom door (although that may show off your sense of humor), but listen to all of the criticism and advice your friends have to offer you. You won't ever make decisive decisions if you act on all the advice you ever receive, but many people have the tendency to ignore anything they don't want to hear. Be open enough that you actually ask for advice on occasion so that your friends realize that the box is now in business—figuratively or not.
  • Try to Speak to One New Person a Day: This could be a stranger or a vague acquaintance that you haven't taken the time to introduce yourself to yet. Sometimes we get to comfortable to a group of friends or a more lonely existence (or sometimes this social skill just doesn't come easily to us), but getting in the habit of being open to new experiences with people is a good idea and will positively affect the other aspects of your personality and happiness in ways that won't be immediately obvious until you succeed with this. If you rarely see people on some days, you may have to adjust the goal, but keep yourself honest as it's likely you're not trying hard enough to find opportunities.
  • Be Mr. or Ms. Polite: Most people don't make a conscious effort to be polite—even if they have good habits in place. Spend some time being extra courteous. Also get practice looking for opportunities to help or aid people—and don't let shyness hold you back, this is a special effort after all.
  • Find Your Stress Reducing Activities: Some people are just very vulnerable to stress, and everyone just freaks out on occasion. Having humor is mostly a social skill, however (although much of it comes from within), so if no one ever finds out it's almost like it never happened at all. Discover the methods that help you calm down, whether it be meditation, reading, power-napping, or playing with that ball-in-cup toy—whatever works for you. Then, when it's time to be open to others about your feelings you can have that ease of manner you've been aiming for.

Your Record

Whenever you snap at anyone for offending you or for not taking you (or something important to you) seriously enough, then mark yourself at "fault". Feel free to communicate your disappointment the moment you can do so calmly and without too much passion. If you are rude or inconsiderate, and you know you did it or that you should have caught it before you acted, then mark yourself at fault. If you are unkind to someone, including moments of nonconstructive criticism, then mark yourself at fault. Make goals based on some of the activities above. If you fail to perform the activity or reach a goal, then mark yourself at fault.


There's an easygoing nature that comes with a perspective of things that aren't as important as we make them sometimes.

Marguerite Moreau, American Actress

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.

Francis Bacon, Sr., English Lawyer and Philosopher

Good humor is the health of the soul, sadness its poison.

Lord Chesterfield, British Statesman and Diplomat

Golden Mean

Mockery, Irony, Sarcasm

Recommended Reading

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff... and It's All Small Stuff — 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.

Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct — by Pier Massimo Forni

This book contains rules for connecting "effectively and happily" with others, including thinking twice before asking for favors, considering that you might be wrong in disagreements, among other ideas.

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.

Life is not a tragedy, it is a comedy. To be alive means to have a sense of humor. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh