“How to build a life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, addressing questions of meaning and happiness.
When I die, I want to go peacefully to my sleep, like my grandfather. Do not scream in terror, like the passengers on your bus.
If you laughed at this joke, it’s because three things happened in your brain at lightning speed. First of all, you detected an incongruity: you imagined my grandfather lying peacefully in his bed, then you realized that he was actually driving a bus. Second, you solved the incongruity: my grandfather was sleeping behind the wheel. Third, the parahippocampal gyrus region of your brain made you realize that I wasn’t serious, so you had fun. And all of this gave you a little joy.
I realize that after this analysis you are probably not laughing anymore. “Humor can be dissected, like a frog can,” according to writer EB White, “but the thing dies in the process and the bowels discourage anything but the pure scientific mind.” Fair enough. Humor is serious business for happiness, however, and cultivating the ability to find humor in life, even during the darkest times, can be the secret to keeping us from despair.
The researchers hypothesized that a sense of humor is made up of six basic variables: the cognitive ability to create or understand jokes, an appreciation and enjoyment of jokes, joking and laughing behaviors, a cheerful or humorous temperament, a perplexed attitude towards life, and a strategy of using humor in the face of adversity. A sense of humor, then, can mean being funny or enjoying funny things.
Consuming humor brings joy and relieves suffering. In a 2010 study by Aging Research Journal, researchers gave a group of older people “humor therapy” – daily jokes, laughter exercises, funny stories, and more. – for eight weeks. A control group did not receive this therapy. At the end of the experiment, the people in the first group said they felt 42% happier than at the start. They were 35% happier than the second group and experienced a decrease in pain and loneliness.
However, the type of humor you consume and share is important. Humor can be positive, when it is not meant to demean or harm others, or when one makes fun of one’s own situation. It can also be negative, when it attacks others or when we belittle ourselves. Positive humor is associated with self-esteem, optimism and life satisfaction, as well as reduced depression, anxiety and stress. Negative humor follows the exact opposite pattern: while it may feel good in the moment, it exacerbates unhappiness.
For humor to be effective in increasing happiness, timing is essential. If you’ve ever laughed at a tragedy and no one laughed, you may have tried to tone down the misstep by asking, “Too soon? Researchers studying humor in the face of tragedy have found that jokes can indeed help people cope with grievances and losses. However, the joke cannot be too close or too far away from the event in time. Tell a joke during a horrific natural disaster and you will be avoided; talk about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and most people won’t know what you’re talking about. But do it right, and you can bring tremendous relief.
Having this sense of comedic timing requires what sociologists call “the ability to create humor,” an ability that the book’s authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas Humor, seriously, credit with many other benefits, such as business success. Being funny, however, is the one dimension of a sense of humor that doesn’t seem to boost happiness, which is sometimes referred to as the Sad Clown Paradox. In a 2010 experiment published in European Journal of Psychology, researchers asked people to write captions for cartoons and come up with jokes in response to frustrating everyday situations. They found no significant relationship between being funny (according to external reviews) and happiness or unhappiness. Another study found that professional comedians score above popular standards on scales measuring psychotic traits.
Laughter itself is what brings a lot of benefits to humor, not necessarily making others laugh. Laughter also acts as a social lubricant, making interactions easier even when there is no humor. Indeed, one study found that only 10-15% of laughs are due to anything, even slightly humorous. Much of the rest is meant to display emotions such as chord or simple friendliness. Pay attention to your ordinary interactions today and you will appreciate it.
Several actionable lessons flow from this brief overview of the science of humor, which we can use to improve our quality of life.
1. Throw away the grimace.
The most obvious advice is not to be gloomy and humorless. I wrote in this column about the guilt some people feel for acting joyfully in a world so filled with legitimate concerns. Some think lightness is inappropriate when we are preoccupied with crises and injustice. But it is a mistake to think so, since aggression is unattractive to others, and thus harms your cause. Of course, there are times when humor is misplaced – remember timing is everything – but less than you might think. Some of the best praise I’ve ever heard was also the most hilarious.
Researchers have found that two particularly humorless ideologies are religious fundamentalism and militarism. Therefore, I am not surprised that the current fundamentalist and pugilist ideological climate in the United States (and many other countries) is also so devoid of humor, or that political fundamentalists are so ready to use their insult to injury. humor as a weapon. To be happier, don’t take part in the joke war.
2. Don’t worry about being funny.
My late mother loved jokes, but she couldn’t repeat them. Every time she started to tell one, before she even reached the end, she laughed so hard that no one had a clue what the punchline was. While her joke technique wasn’t that hot, she had inadvertently found one of the secrets to happiness: it’s better to consume humor than to provide it.
It is also much easier. Funny people tend to have peculiar innate neurological characteristics and unusually high intelligence. Meanwhile, people who like fun things just prioritize humor, cultivate a taste for it, and allow themselves to laugh. To reap the benefits of humor, let others tell the jokes; listen and laugh.
3. Stay positive.
The evidence is clear that negative, hurtful, or overly dark jokes are a corrosive force to your well-being and that of others. This kind of humor tends to be nihilistic as opposed to light; its presupposition is “Nothing matters, so I’m going to make fun of something precious, like my life or yours.”
The negative effects of happiness are quite straightforward in some cases, like making fun of someone in a hurtful way, saying you wish you were dead, or telling a joke that belittles a group of people. But other cases might be less obvious, such as our patterns of social media use. That caustic yet hilarious meme you’re about to post on social media may seem satisfying at the moment, but it will likely reduce your sense of well-being, as well as those who laugh at it.
There’s another great reason to work on your appreciation for humor right now: it can ease the terrible burden we’ve collectively carried over the past year and a half. As the research described above shows, humor has an almost anesthetic quality, which reduces the emphasis on pain and allows us to remember the joys of life.
This idea is nothing new. Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio has finished The Decameron around the year 1353, when the Black Death ravaged Europe, probably killing nearly a third of the population. The book consisted of 100 comic stories told by 10 fictional young friends – seven women and three men – quarantined together on a country estate to avoid the plague. It was extremely popular, relieving the fear of disease and the boredom of isolation for people across Europe as the plague dragged on. He did not avoid the themes of sickness and death, but neither did he emphasize them. The point was, life can be pretty hilarious even in bad conditions, but finding it that way depends on our attitude.
And so it is today. Life has sorrow and tragedy in abundance. But at the same time, it’s pretty funny.