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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

The Psychology of Humor: Interviewing Prof. Dr. Willibald Ruch

Professor Ruch, you have been researching humor for over three decades. What are you currently working on?

We are actually aiming to fill a research gap which has existed for decades. While there have been several studies focusing on humor since the 1980s, this topic has never actually been studied properly, as the virtuous side has been neglected. Previous research used to look at humor in a more traditional way: Why and how often we laugh and how humor may help us to overcome challenges and hardship.

But for a long time the morally good side of humor was ignored. This is a gap which we aim to fill. Inspired by positive psychology we are looking at more virtuous ways of humor which originate from the heart, such as benevolent and the morally good in corrective humor.

Can you tell us more about these two kinds of humor?

Benevolent humor is used when we see other people’s weaknesses, accept them and depict them in a mildly amusing or funny way. This is done with good intentions, in a benevolent and forgiving way.

Corrective humor, on the other side, is a way of trying to correct other people’s negative behavior. The benefit of corrective humor is the fact that it allows the other person to save face. Think of sarcasm or satire, which are ways of picking up on nuisances or negative behavior in our society.

Similar to satire, corrective humor is saying “I take you seriously. You tell me what is important to you. And I show you deridingly what I don’t like about it.” We found corrective humor to be a great tool to attempt a change in behavior, because it is a dosed of mock which can be tolerated by society.

What are the implications for professionals?

A teacher, for instance, instead of grumbling at a student, may choose to portray the student’s behavior in a critical but funny way. The student will understand that his or her behavior was wrong, yet they will not lose face over it. This is a positive way of using humor to change negative behavior.

How is corrective humor different to cynicism or sarcasm?

Benevolent and corrective humor are both built on virtues, hence they have a positive foundation, whereas cynicism or sarcasm don’t. Benevolent humor is based on forgiveness and humanity, while corrective humor may be based on justice and fairness. This is why benevolent and corrective humor have a positive impact on others’ behavior, whereas sarcasm doesn’t.

There are other areas of humor which have a similar impact. The ability to laugh at oneself, for instance, is positive as well as it is built on the virtue of temperance.

What does your research say about the relationship between humor and wellbeing?

We tested a program which consisted of an 8 week course with 2 contact hours per week in which we showed more than 100 participants how to train their sense of humor. As a result we found that self-reported happiness and wellbeing increased after this time period.

What is more, assessments by other people also showed a positive effect. We can conclude that while laughing and entertaining others with humor is beneficial for our mood, it is the humor which is built on virtues and character strengths that strengthens interpersonal relationships and it contributes the most to our wellbeing.

Humor is only one area of your work in positive psychology. What are some of the other areas you and your team are working on?

There are many different areas we’re currently exploring. For instance, one of our PhD students is writing her thesis about virtues and values in the Swiss army. For the past six years we’ve worked on a large nationally funded project to explore positive interventions. The complete project was done online with 945 German speaking adults. The interventions were developed based on the findings that certain character strengths such as hope, zest, love and gratitude have a higher correlation with wellbeing than others. (For more information click here).

We wanted to see whether we could find causality. So we helped people to train these character strengths online to see whether this has a positive impact on wellbeing, and the research did indeed confirm causality.With some of the interventions such as humor training we found a positive impact on wellbeing after only one week of training, and while the statistically verifiable effects of the interventions were small, the positive impact lasted up to six months! We reported similar results for the age group 50-79 years. (For more information on R. T. Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 2014, click here).

These findings have implications for practitioners and other professionals in terms of what to focus on with clients. (For more information see R. Proyer, Gander, Wellenzohn, & Ruch, 04/2015) This was done in a double blind placebo controlled test with a total of 375 adults. We found that people who have several distinct strengths benefit from training even the less distinct strengths, while people who only have only few distinct strengths only benefit from training those strengths. We also looked at whether we should train high scoring strengths only or include low scoring strengths in the training as well.

You wrote a chapter in Chris Peterson & Martin Seligman’s book “Character Strengths and Virtues” and since then also have explored the impact on character strengths and job satisfaction. What can you tell us about the latest findings?

The findings by Claudia Harzer and myself confirm that people who use at least four character strengths in their daily work have a more positive work experience, they show higher engagement and experience the feeling that their job is a calling. For more information about Willibald Ruch and his findings on this topic watch his presentation “When is your job a calling?”:

In 2014 you founded Swippa, the Swiss Positive Psychology Association, with the aim to “encourage the exchange among research, science, and practical applications of positive psychology”. As president of the Association, how do you intend to do this? What are your current projects?

We hold an annual meeting with all members (currently about 100) with contributors from both the scientific as well as the practical field at the annual meeting in order to facilitate this exchange.

Further, we have just held the first “Swiss Hope Conference” in Bern in September 2015 in cooperation with “swissfuture”, with international guest speakers and Leo Bormans, author of “The World Book of Hope” as Keynote Speaker. Also, we are planning to have an international Positive Psychology day every second year in the future with contributions from leading international Positive Psychology researchers.

How important is positive psychology for the University of Zurich and for Switzerland?

Positive psychology is a key priority of my chair, which is the section of Personality and Assessment, with currently 6 research and teaching assistants and PhD students working on positive psychology topics. I believe the University of Zurich is an important contributor in Positive Psychology research.

Stewart Donaldson and colleagues recently quantified and analyzed the publications in Positive Psychology over the past 10 years. They found that while 52 % of the articles are from the USA and 77% of articles are from the English speaking world the University of Zurich is fourth when categorized by the affiliation of the first author. This reflects the importance of positive psychology at the University of Zurich, and I guess the same can be said the other way around.


Austria-born Professor Willibald Ruch, a founder of IPPA, is Head of the Section Personality and Assessment at University of Zurich’s Department of Psychology. His research interests concern the definition and measurement of personality and character generally, and in particular positive traits such as character strengths, virtues, humor, and cheerfulness, but also smiling, laughter and positive emotions.

For more information visit the following websites:

Here is some of the most recent research by Prof. Willibald Ruch and his colleagues:

“Good character at school: positive classroom behavior mediates the link between character strengths and school achievement” (Ruch & Wagner, 2015) click here for more information

“Mapping strengths into virtues: the relation of the 24 VIA-strengths to six ubiquitous virtues” (Ruch & Proyer, 2015) click here for more information

“The character strengths of class clowns” (Ruch, Platt, & Hofmann, 2014) click here for more information.

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