Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


Ludwig Binswanger, often considered the "father" of existential psychology, adopted the terms and concepts introduced by the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. The first and foremost term is Dasein, which many existentialists use to refer to human existence. Literally, it means "being there," but it carries quite a few more subtle connotations: The ordinary German use of the word suggests continuing existence, persistence, survival. Also, the emphasis is on the "da" or "there," and so has the sense of being in the middle of it all, in the thick of things. The "da" also carries the sense of being there as opposed to being here, as if we were not quite where we belonged, and were straining towards somewhere else.

Although no precise translation exists, many people use the word existence, or human existence. Existence derives from the Latin ex-sistare, meaning to come, step, or stand out or forth. As you can see, that carries some of the same subtle meanings as Dasein: being different, moving beyond oneself, becoming.

There are still other names for Dasein. Heidegger referred to Dasein as an openness (Lichtung), such as a meadow, an openness in the forest, since it is Dasein that permits the world to reveal itself. Sartre also acknowledges this sense of openness, by referring to human existence as nothingness. Like a hole can only exist in contrast to something solid, Dasein stands out in sharp contrast to the "thickness" of everything else.

The main quality of Dasein, according to Heidegger, is care (Sorge). "Being there" is never a matter of indifference. We are involved in the world, in others, and in ourselves. We are committed to or engaged in life.   Just one more thing should be noted:  It appears that, where there is consciousness, there is emotion -- at very least an emotional tone or mood.  As the existentialists point out, we just cannot not care  Care is the root of emotions.

The enlightenment philosopher Benedict Spinoza was thinking along these lines many centuries ago:

i.  Desire is the essence of man insofar as it is conceived as determined to any action by any one of its modifications.  [I.e., when there is change, we become motivated, and that is called desire.]

ii.  Joy is man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.  [We feel joy when we improve our abilities to deal with what life hands us.]

iii.  Sorrow is man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.  [We feel sorrow when we find we are not able to deal with life.]

Emotions or feelings have always been a key point of interest in personality theories.  At the lowest level, we have pain and pleasure, which are really more like sensations than feelings. 

Pain leads to a confrontation of view and viewpoint:  It emphasizes the dualism of your "you-ness" over against the world's "other-ness" by threatening that "you-ness."  Pain attacks you or invades you, and you desire less consciousness of it, or less presence of self to it.  Other irritations -- itching, hunger, thirst, sexual appetite -- although more complex, share a similar essence:  You are highly conscious of yourself-in-need.

Physical pleasure, on the other hand, is the diminishing of this self-consciousness, a release from the confrontation.  As implied by the two points above, we never completely lose our desire, but when the "distance" and "speed" of the release are great -- as in orgasm -- we come very close!  Watch yourself during those moments:  Do you look at the walls and think about new wallpaper?  Or do you roll up your eyes and become "one with the moment?"  The latter, I sincerely hope.

With physical pleasure, you begin to lose your desiring, your perspective, your self.

There is also psychological pain and pleasure -- call them distress and delight -- which may be the root of all other emotions. 

Imagine this: In the middle of the night, you get a bad case of the munchies. So you leave your bed and head for the fridge. It's very dark, but you know your apartment like the back of your hand, so you don't bother with the lights. The coffee table is in the middle of the room and you anticipate its presence and maneuver around it. Perhaps you reach out your hand to touch the edge to confirm your anticipation. You're almost there -- five more feet to the fridge -- when WHAM! you walk into a solid six foot...something: The unanticipated!

What do you feel at that moment? Perhaps fear, surprise, perhaps sheer terror. Whatever it is, it is rather unpleasant. Let's call it distress.

You are, at the same time, busy "generating anticipations" -- making guesses about the nature of the beast, taking actions that might alleviate some of your fears, dashing for the light switch. The lights come on... you're expecting a sex-crazed psycho-killer....

And lo and behold, it's the fridge. You cleaned behind it for the first time in 30 years and left it pulled out. Now how do you feel?

Perhaps you feel relief, a sensation of pleasant resolution. You heave a great sigh, perhaps laugh. Things make sense again. Life is on the right path again. Let's call it delight.

(Note that you might still feel some negative emotion as well, as soon as the initial relief is behind you -- like annoyance at your own stupidity. That problem has yet to be resolved!)

Another example: Notice the people coming off one of the "sooper-dooper" roller coasters. Notice their frozen smiles. That's their way of saying "yes! I am alive!"

Let's be more precise: When interaction is problematic, we feel distress. For example, (1) when we fail to anticipate something--like the fridge in our face--we are distressed.

We also feel distress when (2) we anticipate more than one thing at the same time: conflicting anticipations. Which of your roommates is actually the chain-saw killer? Each time you are alone with one of them, you don't know whether to feel secure or to run like the blazes.

And (3) we also feel it when we are faced by general uncertainty: Which way is that cockroach, or rat, or snake going to move next? Perhaps this is the root of our common phobias of these delightful creatures.

Distress can be mild, an irritation or annoyance: When your pen runs out of ink just as you sign a check at the local supermarket.

It can be a bit more intense: The frustration of you car breaking down; the fear as your car careens out of control on the highway; the disgust you feel when you discover that your lover bites the heads off of live chickens.

Delight is the resolution of our distressful problems. We are, actually, developing or elaborating our understanding of the world when we feel delight. Delight is the emotional side of adaptation, of (believe it or not!) learning.

It too can be mild: The pleasant feeling of finishing a crossword puzzle or winning at a game or sport. Or it can be a bit more intense, like the relief you feel when you realize that the roller-coaster only felt like it was leaving the tracks; or the joy of scientific discovery, artistic creation, or mystical experience.

Notice that since solving problems requires having problems, delight depends on distress. Even physical pleasure seems to work like this: You enjoy it more after doing without it for a while, whether "it" is food, drink, or sex! Too much of it, and it doesn't seem to satisfy quite so well. (Note that our response to this is often to try doing it even more! Hence some of our neurotic attitudes towards sex, food, gambling, attention....)

Facing a problem doesn't cause distress -- it is distress. The distress is just the feeling-side of the situation. The same points apply to delight. It isn't caused by problem-resolution, it is problem-resolution. And distress and delight don't cause you to seek a solution; they are not "motivating forces."

But there's no doubt that the situations in which you feel distress may be ones that you avoid in the future. Or, if they resulted in delight, they may be ones you seek out in the future. It is the anticipation of distress or delight that is motivating.

One question that is asked repeatedly is “what are the basic emotions.”  There have been dozens of answers to this, none of which have been completely satisfying.  This is, no doubt, due to the fact that emotional response is complex to begin with, and is made even more complex by the fact that we add our thoughts and interpretations to them as well as just “experiencing” them as they are.  I suggest that we can organize emotions into seven families:

The surprise family (surprise, startle, astonishment, bewilderment, confusion, shock)

What you and I would call emotions (or affect, or feelings) George Kelly called constructs of transition, because they refer to the experiences we have when we move from one way of looking at the world or ourselves to another.  At the very beginning of these transitions, we have yet to "decide" whether we should be afraid, or angry, or even happy.  These transitional experiences are encompassed by the surprise family of emotions.

At the end of a long day at work, you come home to your apartment, unlock the door, reach for the light switch and...  a dozen people jump up from behind couches and chairs!  Surprise!  they shout.  At that moments, you are fundamentally confused.  You might even wet yourself!  Fortunately, you quickly recognize your friends and family, and enjoy your "surprise" party. But note that many people really hate surprise parties, or surprises of any sort.  That is because surprise is essentially a distressful emotion.

It is possible to stretch surprise well beyond its usual brief nature.  Take for example that famous experiment the army (supposedly) conducted, where they gave unsuspecting soldiers LSD.  When the room starts to melt around you and your friends grow tentacles and everything has a rainbow around it, you will be (assuming you are not an old hand at hallucinogenics) seriously confused, and your distress will escalate to fear and even terror.

Even more confusing than an LSD experience is the experience of finding yourself in the middle of a culture very different from your own.  At first, things may seem to be going okay, being oblivious to the fact that you are behaving like a barbarian.  But over time, you will find yourself increasing confused by the fact that you cannot seem to understand these people, and they certainly seem to misunderstand all your good intentions.  This is called "culture shock," and is a big part of what lies at the root of homesickness.

The fear family (fear, threat, terror, anxiety, doubt, caution, suspicion)

Spinoza defined fear like this:  Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.  [When we detect the possibility of sorrow in an uncertain situation, we feel fear.]

When you are suddenly aware that your constructs aren't functioning well, you feel anxiety. You are (as Kelly said) "caught with your constructs down." It can be anything from your checkbook not balancing, to forgetting someone's name during introductions, to an unexpected hallucinogenic trip, to forgetting your own name. When anticipations fail, you feel anxiety. If you've taken a social psychology course, you might recognize the concept as being very similar to cognitive dissonance.

Although many definitions have been proposed for anxiety, they tend to revolve around unnecessary or inappropriate fear.  Kelly notes that it is actually the anticipation of a fearful situation, accurately or not.  Fear, in turn, is usually understood as involving the perception of imminent harm, physical or psychological.  These definitions serve well for most circumstances.

Snygg and Combs address clinical concerns by adding the concept of threat.   Threat is "the awareness of menace to the phenomenal self".  Ideally, the threat is met with appropriate actions and new differentiations that enhance the person's ability to deal with similar threats in the future.

If the person doesn't have the organization to deal with the threat in this way, he or she may resort to stop-gap, sand-bag measures that, while they may remove the threat for the moment, don't actually serve the self in the long-run.  Defenses, neurotic and psychotic symptoms, and even criminal behavior is explained in this way.

When we see a problem coming, we may give in to our anxiety and run away, physically or psychologically - a response we call avoidance. With avoidance, we are really trying to get out of an emotional situation and back into a peaceful state. Unfortunately, if you avoid problems and their distress, you also avoid the delight of solutions. Think of some of the common "psychological" ways we avoid life's problems: Alcohol, drugs, television. The goal of avoidance is to be unconscious, or at least unconscious of problems.  But too often, the problems are just there waiting for you.

When the anxiety involves anticipations of great changes coming to your core constructs -- the ones of greatest importance to you -- it becomes a threat. For example, you are not feeling well. You think it might be something serious. You go to the doctor. He looks. He shakes his head. He looks again. He gets solemn. He calls in a colleague.... This is "threat." We also feel it when we graduate, get married, become parents for the first time, when roller coasters leave the track, and during therapy.

The existentialists have some interesting things to add to the idea of anxiety:

Being free means making choices. In fact, we are "condemned to choose," as Sartre put it, and the only thing we can't choose is not to choose. We have to choose even though, as Kierkegaard pointed out, we are in fact ignorant, powerless, and mortal, that is, you never have enough information to make a good decision, you often can't make it happen when you do, and you may die before you get it done anyway!

Heidegger and other existentialists use the word Angst, anxiety, to refer to the apprehension we feel as we move into the uncertainty of our future. It is sometimes translated as dread to emphasize the anguish and despair that may come with the need to choose, but anxiety better conveys the generality of it. Anxiety, unlike fear or dread, doesn't have as well-defined an object. It is more a state of being than anything more specific.

Existentialists often talk about nothingness in association with anxiety: Because we are not, like tables, angels, and woodchucks, nicely determined, it sometimes feels as if we are about to slip off into nothingness. We would like to be rocks -- solid, simple, eternal -- but we find we are whirlwinds. Anxiety is not some temporary inconvenience to be removed by your friendly therapist; it is a part of being human.

The anger family (anger, rage, frustration, hatred, hostility, envy, jealousy, disgust, contempt, annoyance, indignation)

Here's what Spinoza had to say about these emotions:

Anger is the desire by which we are impelled, through hatred, to injure those whom we hate.
  [Anger is the emotion behind aggression.  It includes the desire for revenge.]

Hatred is sorrow with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  [When something, or someone, gives us sorrow, we feel hatred towards that thing or person.]

Envy is hatred in so far as it affects a man so that he is sad at the good fortune of another person and is glad when any evil happens to him.  [Envy may include jealousy and lead to spitefulness.]

Anger is our response to a violation of what we perceive to be the rules of reality when we additionally perceive that we cannot and should not adapt to that violation, that its source is out there and should be changed. Anger includes the physical build-up of energy needed to solve the problem at its root. Just try to hold back a baby from crawling, and see what you get.  When we act on our anger, it becomes aggression.  If someone insults my tie, I can punch his lights out, in which case I can wear my tie in peace. Anger and aggression are not necessarily bad: It also includes things we might today prefer to call assertiveness: Sometimes things are not as they should be, and we should change them to fit our ideals.  It includes our anger at social injustices, for example, and aggressive action to correct them.  Without assertiveness, there would be no social progress!

Unrealistic anger, the kind we hang on to despite the suffering it causes us and the people around us, could be labelled hostility. Hostility is a matter of insisting that your constructs are valid, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Examples might include an elderly boxer still claiming to be "the greatest," a nerd who truly believes he's a Don Juan, or a person in therapy who desperately resists acknowledging that there even is a problem. Often, what he really needs to do is change himself, adapt. But for some reason -- his culture, for example -- giving-in is taboo. Like physical pleasures, when it doesn't work right, we do what we always do, only more!

The sadness family (sadness, sorrow, depression, anguish, despair, grief, loneliness, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, remorse, regret)

Spinoza again:

Despair is sorrow arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed.
  [Despair happens when fear overwhelms hope.]

Remorse is sorrow with the accompanying idea of something past which, unhoped for, has happened.  [Remorse is the recognition that things have gone wrong.  It might include regret and even guilt, if we had some responsibility in the matter.]

Humility is the sorrow which is produced by contemplating our impotence or helplessness.  [Although humility sounds negative, it involves a realistic understanding of our limitations.]

Shame is sorrow with the accompanying idea of some action which we imagine people blame.  [Like humility, but based on others’ opinions of particular behaviors.  We call it guilt if it is entirely internalized.]

Despondency is thinking too little of ourselves through sorrow.  [This corresponds to that unrealistic sense of guilt that plagues so many people.]

Sadness is the experience of the world not being as it should be, with the added notion that we have no power to alter the situation.  Instead, there is a need to alter ourselves -- something we are innately reluctant to do! Grief would be the obvious extreme example: You can't get them back; you can only learn to live with their absence. Many of our major learning experiences involve sadness, such as coming to understand our own limitations, or the limitations of our loved ones, for example.  Depression could be defined as unrealistic sadness that continues long after the original situation.

Notice that anger is a little more hopeful; sadness is a little harder to take. People tend to be angry at things before they settle down to accept what they can't change. That says something very important about us: We resist major changes in the self; if we can, we try to make the world fit our expectations.  A person who is always trying to make himself fit the world -- and especially others' expectations -- we call compliant and his emotional state is commonly depressed. He is always trying to adjust himself to others, when often what he needs is to get angry

Guilt is another key emotion.  Related to shame, it is usually understood as the feelings aroused when one contravenes
internalized social rules.  Kelly provides a useful elaboration:  He defines it as the feeling we get when we contravene our own self-definition (which may or may not involve those standard social rules!).  This is a novel and useful definition of guilt, because it includes situations that people know to be guilt-ridden and yet don't meet the usual criterion of being in some way immoral. If your child falls into a manhole, it may not be your fault, but you will feel guilty, because it violates your belief that it is your duty as a parent to prevent accidents like this. Similarly, children often feel guilty when a parent gets sick, or when parents divorce. And when a criminal does something out of character, something the rest of the world might consider good, he feels guilty about it!

Heidegger used the German word Schuld to refer to our responsibility to ourselves. Schuld means both guilt and debt. If we do not do what we know we should, we feel guilt. We have incurred a debt to Dasein. And since Dasein is always in the process of development, never quite finished, we are always dealing with incompleteness, in the same sense that we are always confronted by uncertainty.

Another word that fits in well here is regret. Guilt is certainly a matter of regret over the things we have done -- or left undone -- that have harmed others. But we also feel regret over past decisions that don't harm anyone but ourselves. When we have chosen the easy way out, or chosen not to commit ourselves or not to get involved, or have chosen to do less rather than more, when we have lost our nerve, we feel regret.

The eagerness family (eagerness, anticipation, excitement, confidence, hopefulness, trust, curiosity, interest)

Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.  [When we detect the possibility of joy in an otherwise uncertain situation, we feel hope.]

Confidence is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed.  [Confidence happens when hope conquers fear.]

Anxiety is the distressful anticipation of distress. From experience, you expect that the situation before you will be unpleasant. This expectation is itself unpleasant: it conflicts with your desire to be a happy, carefree individual. And, often, you try to avoid the situation.  Hope is the delightful anticipation of delight. From experience, the problem before you will be resolved, and this is a happy thought. Depending on details, we could also call this eagerness, or even anxiety, as in "I'm anxious to get started!"

Now, the "basic" distress and delight don't usually happen at the same time--since one is the problem and the other the solution. But anticipatory distress and delight -- that is, anxiety and hope -- often happen at the same time: We call this "mixed emotions."  Skimming across deep water on little sticks at 30 miles per hour can make you nervous; water-skiing, on the other hand, sounds like fun. You feel both anxiety and eagerness. You decision whether to try it will be based on how these two balance out for you. Notice I said "for you." The decision is very much a subjective one, based on what makes you anxious and eager.

More mature people tend to take on problems with an eye towards a solution: They face distress and anxiety with hope and eagerness. This takes a little something--an ability to focus on your goals, and to ignore the pains of getting there. This has been called will-power, self-discipline, need for achievement, delay-of-gratification, and emotional intelligence. I just call it will.

The happiness family (happiness, elation, joy, gladness, contentment, satisfaction, self-satisfaction, pride, love, affection, compassion, amusement, humor, laughter)

Gladness is joy with the accompanying idea of something past which, unhoped for, has happened.  [Gladness is the recognition that things have gone well.]

Love is joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  [When something, or someone, gives us joy, we feel love towards that thing or person.]

Compassion is love in so far as it affects a man so that he is glad at the prosperity  of another person and is sad when any evil happens to him.  [This, which many would call love, is no doubt the most worthy emotion.]

Self-satisfaction is the joy which is produced by contemplating ourselves and our own power of action.  [Today, we might refer to this as self-esteem or self-worth.]

Delight is, perhaps, less complex than distress.  It is based on the solution to problems, a return to smooth anticipation, and the pleasurable retreat towards a near-unconscious state.  Think of the satisfaction one feels when one finishes some task or solves some puzzle, however large or small.  If you think about the varieties of distress, you can perhaps see as well the varieties of delight:  The relief of escaping the fearful situation;  The satisfaction of eliminating the source of your anger;  Even the slow return to acceptance after a long stretch of grief.

Love is perhaps the deepest positive emotion most of us ever have the pleasure of experiencing.  When we love someone, we find that our own well-being depends on the well-being of our beloved.  "Well-being" is a major concept for me, but let's just focus on pleasure for now:  If I love you then (among other things) I am pleased by your pleasure.  Yet my own pains or needs are not being dealt with.  In fact, I may actually undergo further pain or deprivation in order that you may have pleasure!

Without the "release from confrontation" of physical pleasure, I nevertheless experience a pleasure, when gazing deeply into the eyes of my beloved, that takes me "out" of myself.

My favorite example of delight is humor.  Humor is the sudden awareness of an alternative construction (i.e. solution) of a distressful situation which dissipates (to some degree) that distress.

Children's humor seems to fit the definition quite well if we understand "alternative construction" to include dissipation of distress not under the control of the child itself, i.e., provided by another.  The archetype for children's humor (and, I would argue, of all humor) is "peek-a-boo."  First the infant is uncertain, slightly frightened; then the fear is shown to be illusory.  Humor is the discovery of safety within fear, just like laughter, humor's physical counterpoint, is relaxation within stress.

If laughter is relatively easy to explain, smiles are more difficult.  The smile is certainly not "showing teeth," as some early theorists suggested.  If you look at animals doing so, or if you do so yourself, you can see the difference clearly.  In its fullest, least inhibited form, i.e. in infants,the smile does involve opening the mouth, but it is to breathe, after having suspended breathing for a moment or two before.  This resumption of breathing is related to the sigh of relief and, of course, to the strange spasmodic breathing of the laugh, and it comes only after the "safety" has been revealed.

The most characteristic aspect of the smile is the upturned lips, or rather, if you look closely, the twinkling of the eyes and "popping" of cheeks.  The smile is the opposite of the fearful face, just like the sigh of relief is the opposite of the shallow or still breathing of fear.  Perhaps the smile is an "over-release" of the fear-face, a reversal of certain muscle tensions past relaxation.  (Please notice that fear is not the same, physically or mentally, as anger, i.e., fight and flight, whatever their commonalities in the sympathetic nervous system, are quite distinguishable!)  A reasonable hypothesis is that the smile is a sign-stimulus communicating relief from fear or discomfort.

Young children seem especially fond of simple incongruity viewed in safety:  Expectations are violated, yet something in the scenario tells the child that the violation need not be feared, e.g. the presence of a parent, distance, the fact that the violation is on television or only in a story, i.e. is not "real," etc.  Later, we see more so-called "aggressive" humor, which is not based on aggression at all, but rather, like other humor, on relief from fear:  A very young child may cry when another child falls; an older child has learned to more clearly differentiate himself from others and will laugh at another's fall -- not out of malice, but out of a relief that it was, in fact, not himself who fell.

The idea that much humor is aggressive in a truly malicious sense comes from the fact that the smile and the laugh may also be generated voluntarily or become associated with things other than humor.  Most people have little difficulty differentiating the smirk from the smile or the bark from the laugh.  Likewise, we can, without too much practice, differentiate the nervous laugh and the social laugh from a genuine one, and so on.  That some humor hurts some people, and that, in fact, there may be at least a malicious component to some humor is, of course, undeniable.  Nevertheless, such humor is humor to those people in whom some degree of fear is elicited and then relieved.  In addition, such humor may contain something more universally funny.

Note that the nervous smile and laugh reflect a desired or hoped-for resolution, so we may smile when someone gives us bad news, or laugh when we are in difficulty.  The fact that we are capable of imagining ourselves out of the situation we are in may be a component of a lot more than just nervous laughter.

To return to children's humor, in older children, many jokes are made at the expense of the adult world.  At a certain age, demands are made on the child to live up to the standards of the adult world.  This can be quite frustrating and, especially when punishments are involved, quite frightening.  Even without punishment, adult standards are often presented as an ideal to which the child must aspire, and the child, by adults or by himself, is shown to be lacking.  Fear of unworthiness -- i.e. inferiority -- becomes a central theme for children, and anything that relieves that fear in a sudden, perspective-changing way is found humorous.  When adults make mistakes, even simple ones such as mistakes in speech or forgetting a name, the child's tension are, for a while, relieved.

Again, this is not to say that humor is basically a reflection of power, mastery, or status-demonstration.  These things tend to be accompanied by the same kinds of smirks and barks that characterize aggressive "humor," and, in fact, are just variations on that theme.  As I pointed out above, hostile laughter is a gesture of superiority which says "you are laughable."  That it isn't really so funny is revealed by the fact that, when we say something is "ridiculous," we seldom laugh!  Nevertheless, some genuine humor may contain "power" components, and whoever finds status a fearful issue will find such humor amusing.

We also find, in later childhood, the emergence of the "jokester" or comedian.  One way to discover safety within a fearful situation is to have someone else attack that situation, especially if that someone has voluntarily taken on the  role, accepts the dangers associated with it, finds the laughter of others rewarding, or in other ways manages to circumnavigate the consequences of his actions.  Historically, of course, the clown, because he is not "taken seriously," is permitted to attack the powers that be, and others are permitted to laugh as long as they maintain the pretense that they laugh at the clown, not at the butts of his humor.  It is generally safer to be in the audience.

Adult humor is a little more difficult to understand.  It is clear that the intensity of enjoyment usually greatly exceeds the intensity of the relief-from-confusion intrinsic to the humorous event itself.  The little bit of incongruity within a joke, for example, is hardly enough to be responsible for the laughter that follows; yet there are rarely the clear examples of fearfulness we find in children.  The obvious response to this dilemma is to seek a source of tension within the adult, a source that may be less-than-fully-available to consciousness.

Edmund Bergler, building on Freud's work, said "the joke -- every joke -- is on the superego."  His theory of humor makes heavy use of Freudian preconceptions, which we must bracket, but the basic idea is born out by experience:  We are compelled by our upbringing and the culture that upbringing reflects to behave ourselves, to live by the rules, to aspire to certain ideals, to put away childish things, to deny certain needs, etc.  These things provide a social order that supplements the natural order (which may be very disorderly to say the least!).  When these rules are violated, by ourselves or others, we feel anxiety and guilt.  Humor violates these rules, then immediately relieves us of our distress at those violations by presenting an alternative construction of the violation.

Three very-pregnant women are waiting to see their doctor.  The first says "I'm sure I'm having a boy this time, because my husband was on top, and I always have boys when he's on top."  The second one says "That's interesting; I guess I'll have a girl, then, because I was on top.  The third woman begins to cry, and the other two ask her why she's crying, and she says "I think I'm having puppies!"

We desire an orderly world -- i.e. one we are capable of comprehending and anticipating.  We are, however, constantly aware of the limits of our comprehension, and many of us live in a rather constant, if modest, state of anxiety, that is, of expecting the unexpected.  Humor is a major part of an understanding  and acceptance of these facts:  I desire order; I will never have it in any complete form; anxiety is a part of life.  Then add the fact that the surprises are seldom as great as our anxiety about them!

Another way of looking at it is to see humor as a short, quick version of phenomena like trust and optimism, other things that the humorless call foolish.  Note that word, foolish:  In the archetypal humor situation -- peek-a-boo -- mom fools us; and the fool is the person who walks into danger (where wise men fear to tread) with a smile on his face.  This also brings to mind the use of humorous stories in mystical traditions such as Zen and Sufiism:  One might say that the goal of these traditions is to turn the adherent into a fool -- God's fool, perhaps, but a fool nonetheless.  The same may be said for certain forms of therapy.  Such "deep" humor seems to involve the stripping away of layers of conditioning (conditions of worth? the social unconscious? Maya?) so that our lives may be guided by more profound forces (morality? reason? actualization? the Tao?).

It is worthwhile to try to distinguish "higher" from "lower" forms of humor.  Lower forms are based on relief of distress without adaptation, by means of some kind of avoidance or other external change.  Someone else intervenes and shows us that the object of fear is safe, as in peek-a-boo, or we laugh at the stranger's display of weakness, or we observe the object of fear attacked in safety, by a comedian or in a comic strip or in some way not likely to lead to retribution.  At the "peek-a-boo" level it is quite passive; at other levels it shares some qualities with anger.  Anger is a response to fear that musters our energies and directs them toward changing the world to fit our expectations of it (thus "correcting" our "misunderstanding").  It is active and may be the source of great positive change.  It may also serve as a conservative function in that it protects the "status quo" of our beliefs and values by manipulating dissonant information or beating-up disagreeable others.

Higher humor is based on relief of distress through true adaptation or learning.  Our fear is shown to be baseless through a higher reconstruction of the situation.  Instead of saying to oneself "I'm glad it's him and not me!" we say "there go I!"  i.e. I laugh not at him but at the humanity we share, at the me in him.  Again, safety plays a part, even at this level, since, if it actually were me, I would need to defend myself; the fact that it is him allows me to accept the lesson.  So higher humor involves real learning, a miniature "aha!" experience.  But it is also associated, therefore, with some sadness, inasmuch as sadness is the emotional tone of our need to change ourselves in response to undeniable realities.  When we rise above our illusions, we become "disillusioned," and we grieve for our past selves.

The "me-in-him" idea is, I believe, a lot more important in most humor than is implied here.  We fail to differentiate ourselves from others as well as we like to think we do (especially unconsciously, or pre-reflectively), so that empathy is not so much a higher function placed on top of lower, more selfish ones, as it is a basic sense of identity with the other.  So a great deal of the tension developed in humorous situations is based on a partial identification with the comedian, the perpetrator in a joke, or the butt of the joke, followed by anything from "I'm glad it wasn't me" to "there but for the grace of God go I."  Again, this serves to emphasize the fact that "hostile" humor and humor that reveals universals of human nature are actually cut from the same cloth.

Last, I would like to point out that in much, even most, humor, there are likely to be several lines of tension-building and tension-relief operating simultaneously and consequentially.  A simple joke, for example, may include several incongruities, poke fun at "adult" social conventions, play with linguistic conventions and double-meanings, introduce taboo sexual topics, toy with socially unacceptable aggressiveness, establish a degree of superiority, be told by someone taking the comic role, and reveal universals of human nature all at the same time.  Add such "external" factors as setting, mood, contagion, etc., and analysis becomes even more challenging.  Humor reminds me of cooking, in that we have been doing it so long that even a "simple" dish involves many ingredients and complex preparations.

The Boredom Family (boredom, ennui)

What can I say about boredom?  Many would not even consider it to be an emotion at all.  But no one I know enjoys being bored.  It is a negative emotion, if a rather dull one.  If you have come to believe that your life should be fun, entertaining, busy, full of people, full of interesting activities - as so many of us in the modern world have come to believe - then you would find the lack of these things disconcerting.  You will be bored.

I have read (I can't remember where) that some tribal people don't seem to be bothered by boredom.  When work is done and conversation flags, and the last pig-roast is just a vague memory, they will simply sit, stare at the horizon, perhaps take a little nap.  You begin reading about boredom only when you get to spoiled aristocrats in Rome or the Renaissance, and of course when you get to the modern age, where we fill our lives with entertainment.  Interesting, if, well, a bit boring.