Do we lose our sense of humour as we age?
Updated: Nov 15
Let's begin with a joke:
A penguin walks into a pub.
He says to the barman, 'Have you seen my brother?'
The barman says, 'I don't know. What's he look like?'
This was a favourite joke of famous joke peddler Barry Cryer.
I’m not sure how old he was when he told this, but he still had a great sense of humour well into his dotage. He died this year aged 86.
Would I find this joke funny if I was 86? Would I have found it funny when I was 16? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that as we age dreadful things begin to happen: our muscles weaken, our bones grind and ache, our eyes get a bit iffy and our heart skips a beat whenever we see a Pringle jumper in a shop window.
What also happens, it seems, is that our humour begins to fade.
Horrifyingly, this starts at the age of 23.
The humour cliff - it’s a work thing
When we’re about four years old we laugh about 300 times a day.
At what and why, who knows?
Maybe dad tripping over the carpet again or mum saying the word poo numerous times.
I suppose the world seems a funny place when you’re that young - everything is new and delightful.
But for an adult, life isn’t so new and delightful and will take nearly three months to laugh 300 times.
This gloomy fact is highlighted in the book Humor, Seriously.
Its authors, Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford professor, and Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer, cite a Gallup survey in which it asked 1.4 million people in 166 countries, a simple question: did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
It seems that things are fine and dandy with our humour muscles until we hit 23, which is the age at which most of us start to work for a living.
Once we set foot on the first rung of the corporate ladder, we get all earnest and po-faced hoping that we don’t slip and crack our chin on a rung on the way up.
No one dares to tell a joke in front of their work colleagues.
When the boss waltzes in wearing his black Lycra cycling pants everyone bites their tongue to stop themselves from cracking jokes about small packed lunches.
Yet this is precisely what we should be doing if we want to get on in business.
Aaker’s and Bagdonas’ quest is to introduce some levity into the workplace. According to their research, a humorous boss is more likely to be trusted, no matter how awful their sense of humour is.
A manager is 23% more respected and 25% more pleasant to work with despite being as funny as Stan Butler from On The Buses.
Thankfully, we start seeing the funny side of life again when we retire.
So what sort of humour does an older person have?
Funny birthday cards ain’t what they used to be
There’s no doubt our cognitive abilities wane as we get older.
Who hasn’t realised what that one-way road sign meant until it was too late? Or was this just me?
Our cognitive ageing also affects how we see jokes.
A normal joke, where there’s an incongruity or an unexpected punch line, relies upon the temporal lobe and cingulate cortex doing their thing for us to understand.
These regions are responsible for conflict detection and memory.
For some older folks, complex jokes are simply too much to fathom out - different parts of the brain have to try to work out what’s going on.
This is why nonsense jokes and satire, for example, are appreciated more by the young, but not so much by the older generation, who like their jokes to make obvious sense.
This decline in the funniness of nonsense jokes begins at around 40.
And while elders might appreciate a good joke, trying to remember one and telling it is another issue.
The result is that our humour generally becomes more conservative.
But is this gradual shift reflected in our taste in greeting cards?
Only funny nice cards please - I'm getting older
Painting all the walls magnolia, singing along to Val Doonican records, wanting to bring back hanging: a conservative outlook has a lot to answer for.
We play it safe and stick to rigid views.
Outlier humour doesn’t sit well. As we age we gradually take a dislike to disparaging or aggressive humour.
Teasing and being mean are a no-no too. Those young comedians with their so-called edgy humour, which is generally spiteful and demeaning, cut no ice with us oldies.
And there’s an aversion to jokes referring to old age, which is no surprise. I suppose we’ve heard it so many times, it becomes tedious.
I don’t have a problem with rude cards referring to old age as the joke is between two people who know each other well enough not to be offended.
I've done quite a few myself that sell well.
But detailed research is somewhat lacking when it comes to the daily uses of humour among the elderly, and how it changes with age.
All that can be said is that older folks prefer less challenging humorous cards.
Yet there’s no doubt adopting a humorous slant on life and taking things not too seriously is good for you.
Laughing is good for your health - keep it up. You’ll live longer
It’s now well-documented that laughter is beneficial to your health.
Ask any gelotologist (that’s a person who studies laughter, not ice cream) and they’ll confirm having a good guffaw is beneficial and just as pleasurable as a large Mr Whippy.
In bad times such as these, a jolly good laugh does wonders for the soul.
Here's how it can perk you up:
9 reasons why laughing is good for you
1. Releases endorphins - these wonderful chemicals - you have more than 20 - are released when you feel pain and stress.
They’re also released when you exercise, stuff your face with dark chocolate, feel a bit randy, have a massage and have sex.
If these don’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.
2. Reduces the stress hormone - a good giggle reduces the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Next time your gas bill goes up in price, simply laugh your head off.
3. Lowers your blood pressure - reduces the chance of a stroke or heart attack. If you feel your blood boil whenever you watch a party political broadcast, snort at the TV screen.
4. Improves your cardiac health - along with a brisk five-mile walk, a jolly good wheeze will give your heart a jolly good workout.
5. Boosts your T-cells - these are clever little things that help fight a spot of sickness, such as a cold. While those around you are suffering, have a good laugh.
6. Exercises your abs - a spot of simple laughter gets those abs moving. Turning that two-pack into a six-pack might be a tall order, but it’s worth a try.
7. Burns calories - up to 40 calories are lost while laughing. Make sure it's long and hard to get rid of all that excess ice cream and chocolate lying on that waistline.
8. Lightens that anger mood - Has someone got more than five items in their basket? Has the postman walked across your lawn? Laugh in the face of adversity.
9. Makes you more attractive - Admittedly, this is stretching it a bit, but there’s an element of truth in it.
If you’re a man, this is a way into a woman’s heart, as well as other things.
A woman will always look for a man to make her laugh. And a man will always look for a woman who laughs at his lame jokes. Looking like George Clooney helps.
On your own? Laugh at yourself with a Laughie
Humour is an important virtue in successful and happy ageing. We all want to die laughing, don’t we?
But as we get older our social circle may diminish, and the chance to laugh with others becomes less.
That doesn’t mean our ability to laugh should disappear too.
If you find yourself alone, indulge in a Laughie. It's like a Selfie, except you film yourself laughing and play it back to yourself.
Laughter is contagious, so why not cheer yourself up by watching yourself laugh your tits off?
Seems like a normal hobby to me.
Conclusion - keep on laughing until the end
There’s no doubt your humour does change as you get older, but, thankfully, you don’t lose it.
You probably laugh more than you think. And you do so at all sorts of times, at all sorts of situations.
So keep on laughing.
Whether it’s stubbing your toe under a door, or the top of the salt shaker falling into your soup, try to see the funny side.
Read a funny book, text a joke to a bestie, watch a funny movie. It doesn’t take much to lighten your mood.
And if you insist on watching a box set of On The Buses, so be it. As long as it makes you laugh.
You perhaps laugh at different things - at simpler more obvious things, just like a baby.
And just like a baby’s laughter, your laughter is ultimately about love and affection.
This is why you should do more of it.
On that jolly note…
One final joke from Barry Cryer:
A man drives down a country lane and runs over a cockerel. He knocks at a nearby farmhouse door and a woman answers.
‘I appear to have killed your cockerel,’ he says. ’I’d like to replace it.’
The woman replies: ‘Please yourself - the hens are round the back.’