Why we laugh and how we can make the most of humour

Humour is one of the things that’s unique (or as close to it as we can find) to humans, whether it’s rooted in physical comedy, or as is more often the case, communicated through language (another human superpower). There are mammals who make laughter-like sounds, but it’s not clear that humour is really involved.

But even more interesting is what we laugh at.

“Comedy is tragedy plus time. The things we find funny, it turns out, are often not pleasant in themselves: we find humour in awkwardness, in pain, in dying, in illness and disability. Humour is how we engage the unusual and unexpected and unknown, how we come to terms with the mystery of existence. — Carol Burnett, comedian

“Humour is…how we come to terms with the mystery of existence.”

That is why a sense of humour is part of our emotional health toolbox: without the ability to laugh at life, at ourselves, we may well collapse under the sheer weight of our own existence. Like many tools, however, humour is also easily and often weaponised, so that one of the most valuable elements of mental health can be used to inflict grievous emotional damage. We’re all too familiar with the mean fun at the expense of people with physical and mental health problems, for instance—words like “lame” and “retard” didn’t come out of nowhere.

To some, the way to resolve this dichotomy is to stay clear of difficult subjects. This has been a whole debate, much of it visible on social media, with arguments insisting on the freedom to say what you wish on one side, and arguments for the responsibility to watch what you say on the other.

But perhaps the problem lies in how the problem is typically posed. When the question is “How do we avoid offending people?” the easy answer is, “Don’t do what they find offensive.”

What if we frame it differently, though? If we agree that coping with the difficult aspects of life is precisely what we need humour for, shouldn’t we be asking instead, “How can we use humour to help one another cope better with challenges in health and life?”

To answer that consider the laughter research (a funny study if ever there was one!) by Robert Provine, a neuroscientist. Provine’s key finding, from observing and analysing 1200 episodes of naturally occurring laughter, was that laughter appears to have a primarily social function. He wrote:

“Laughter is a decidedly social signal, not an egocentric expression of emotion. In the absence of stimulating media (television, radio or books), people are about 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a social situation than when they are alone.”

You can attest to this yourself if you’ve ever watched a Netflix comedy show alone in your bedroom. You might find it funny, but you simply won’t laugh as much. It’s why they have laugh tracks in sitcoms—check on YouTube for examples of your favourite sitcoms without the laugh tracks. Be warned: it’s a pretty weird experience. And significantly less funny. I’ve even seen a friend do a short play with no words and no plot that left the audience laughing harder than many audiences I’ve seen in my life—and all there was to it was character after another coming on stage, looking at a sheet of paper and bursting out in laughter. It spread like a virus, and is to this day the most powerful image I have of the social power of laughter.

So yes, laughter is social: we laugh together at life and at ourselves in ways that remind us that even in the things we don’t understand, our perplexity is shared. And it really is infectious: we laugh when others laugh, and even at the sheer fact that they are laughing.

If, that is, we have no reason to think they may be laughing at us.

Because, as it turns out, the social nature of laughter is a double-edged sword: as powerful a force as it can be to bring us together, it can just as powerfully force us apart. Humour can be used to include and exclude.

You have almost certainly been in that extremely awkward situation in which, while laughing with others, you realised mid-laugh that the joke was on you—that you were being made fun of and everyone else was not merely laughing at the joke, but very specifically laughing at you. You may have continued laughing to keep up appearances, but you almost certainly stopped finding the entire thing funny from that very moment. It was the same joke but in that moment the social context had changed, as you realised you weren’t in on the joke.

You were the joke.

Whatever you felt in such a moment—awkardness, embarrassment, even shame—it arose from the painful realisation that, however you imagined your relationship to the other people, they didn’t see you as really one of them. They were in on the joke and you, the joke, were excluded.

The social nature of humour is why inside jokes are both such fun and such a pain, depending on if you’re inside or not. Any group of people with some shared history quickly develops their inside jokes: the jokes that belong to them, testaments to their special connectedness, and by getting the joke insiders are reminded they’re included in the group. But for those who don’t get the context that makes the joke work, inside jokes are a reminder of not belonging.

It’s also why we are okay with laughing at our family, or our town, or our country, or any other group we consider ourselves a part of, but feel uncomfortable when those we consider non-members laugh heartily at the very jokes we’re making. When we laugh at our own, we are really laughing at ourselves, and they can laugh with us. And when outsiders laugh at our own, we fear they are laughing at us, because we are aware of our being outsiders to their own groups.

When you happen to be living with anything that makes you significantly or visibly different from others—a disability for instance—all of this is multiple times worse. The last thing anyone needs when dealing with uncertainty and pain is the feeling of being excluded as a result. And when it is severe enough, it can feel like being excluded from the “group” of humanity itself. And that’s when humour can be just as deeply harmful as it can be healthy.

Does this mean, then, that only people with a problem are qualified to joke about it? Not necessarily, I think. But at the very least, it does mean paying careful attention to not just what people different from you find offensive, but more importantly, why.

And to help with that, there’s theory from 2010 that has quickly gained ground in humour research which may offer insight into not just the why of offensiveness, but the how of making humour more inclusive. Developed by researchers Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, it’s called the benign violation theory. The basic idea is that two conditions are prerequisite to humour: there must be a violation of our understanding of how things work, but the violation must be non-threatening.

Without the violation there’s no humour—no one finds logic hilarious. It’s also why old jokes are a bit less funny—the violation is familiar— and why explaining jokes strips them of their humour—unpacking a violation turns it into logic. If, however, the violation is not benign, the person who feels threatened by it finds it more fearful than funny. (There’s a theory of humour called the incongruity-resolution theory, which basically frames it as a sort of resolution of the gaps between our expectation and reality. What the benign violation theory adds to this is that this incongruity, or violation, must be non-threatening.)

The interesting thing with violations, of course, is that one person’s benign is another person’s threatening. And what’s threatening today can feel benign to the same person tomorrow (like with the definition of comedy as tragedy plus time). And we’ve already seen how what feels benign coming from one person can feel threatening from another. And of course what feels like a violation to one audience may just be a norm to another.

In other words, humour, like all language, is contextual.

So with all that in mind let’s return to our original question:

How can we use humour to help one another cope better with challenges in health and life? It seems to me there are four aspects, all of which are connected.

Humanity. For starters, we can choose to use humour to include others and refuse to use it to exclude. And what more better way to do that than with the thing we all share: the human condition. There has always been and will always be a lot of humour to be found in our shared humanity. But of course even in the most common things there will always be exceptions—the people who don’t share those experiences—which is where the next bit comes in.

Empathy. I said earlier that to make jokes about something need not require personal experience of it. That may have seemed an appeal to freedom of speech, but it was empathy I had in mind. Freedom, after all, may be used irresponsibly, but it is empathy—our ability to enter imaginatively into situations unfamiliar to us—that lies at the root of all caring. We don’t have to limit our learning and engaging to only our own personal experience. And empathy works both ways, too, allowing those who create humour to enter into the realities of their audience and allowing us to relate to humour about things we may not ourselves have experienced. But the latter requires a certain prerequisite.

Trust. Another thing I said earlier was that humour, like language, is contextual: the meaning of both words and jokes is grounded in a relationship and a shared history. Humour takes that one step further, in that at the bottom of all successful humour lies an unspoken social contract: for us to fully participate in humour requires that we trust it is not at our expense, excluding us—we must feel truly part of those who are laughing, not the object of their laughter. In the absence of trust, any interaction—and certainly any violation—becomes potentially malign. Trust is why we can make fun of our friends: we have earned enough of their trust over time they recognise our poking fun as a joke with us, not on them and at their expense. And a key element in the pain of finding ourselves the butt of a joke is the recognition—too late—that our trust has been betrayed. The best comedians understand this, which is why work to build an atmosphere of intimacy with their audience. Humour must be rooted in relationship—we cannot insist that people take jokes just because we wish to make them, if we won’t do the pre-work of earning their trust. But there’s something else good comedians know how to do…

Attention. Good comedians pay attention to the audience, and that’s something we can all learn from. Because as important as trust is, it’s easy to overestimate how much of it we have earned and realise too late that our violations end up less benign than we imagined. It’s also by paying attention that we learn what each is one person’s violation but another’s mere norm. Most of all paying attention requires an attitude of humility, of remaining open to the possibility of being wrong, and staying willing to keep learning. And this is necessary, because all humour-making is a form of risk-taking. With any joke you tell, you are walking a thin line between being unfunny on one side and being offensive or annoying on the other. And being funny requires making your peace with falling on one side or the other now and then. But it helps to have a listening ear, because if nothing else, listening is always a good way to earn trust.

I close with a word by GK Chesterton:

The first principle is that nobody should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it is foreign; the second is that he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong because it is funny.… A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that they must be inferior to himself.… Only the traveller who stops at that point is totally wrong; and the traveller only too often does stop at that point. He has found something to make him laugh, and he will not suffer it to make him think.

What are your thoughts?

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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