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How Laughter Lifts You Up: Gain More From a Healthy Sense of Humour

·9-min read
How Laughter Lifts You Up: Gain More From a Healthy Sense of Humour

Comedian Wayne Federman is a veteran of stand-up and has appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley. But his ability to find humour in almost any situation rarely served him better than in a time of Covid-related social restrictions.

‘During the pandemic, I’m shut down and all my gigs are cancelled,’ he says. ‘I’m alone in the house, and I find out my ID is stolen. I’m, like, “Yes! This could be the best day I’ve had in years.”’ The more he thought about it, the funnier the situation seemed. ‘Sometimes, you think you don’t matter in life, and you wake up and think, “Hey, somebody wants to be me,”’ he says. ‘That’s awesome.’

The pandemic has been a hothouse for the humour-as-self-care industry, with podcasts, books and Netflix comedy specials all promoting the idea that you can feel more confident, vital or successful by taking life less seriously.

‘You’re happy when you’re laughing,’ says Joseph Vazquez, associate dean of clinical education at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences. That’s because laughter generates oxytocin (the ‘bonding hormone’) in the brain’s hypothalamus, while suppressing the release of cortisol. Together, these processes can cue feelings of relaxation and trust, explains Stanford lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, co-author of the book Humour, Seriously. Laughter ‘improves our mental health’, she says.

You’re also tapping into the chemical ‘released during sex and childbirth – moments when we feel bonded,’ adds Bagdonas’s co-author, Jennifer Aaker. So, how can we laugh more often?

Making Sense of Humour

The best way to kill a joke is to explain it. But if you take a step back, you’ll notice that what makes Federman’s quips so good is that they’re both absurd and hopeful. That’s different from teasing others or putting yourself down in order to get laughs, which can eventually take a toll on your mental health. ‘There’s a distinction between “Oops, I made a mistake, ha, ha” and “I’m garbage, ha, ha,”’ says Andrew Olah, a research consultant who studies the impact of humorous messaging.

But it turns out it’s pretty easy to evaluate how healthy your own sense of humour is, then fine-tune it. The Humour Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) is a test created nearly 20 years ago by researchers at the University of Western Ontario to explore how your style of humour might predict and affect certain aspects of your mental health. It still resonates today, because the HSQ doesn’t tell you how funny you are – it tells you how you try to be funny.

Respondents are asked to rate 32 statements, such as: ‘I will often get carried away in putting myself down if it makes my family or friends laugh.’ Based on their responses, they receive scores in four widely recognised categories of mirth: aggressive (sarcasm and teasing), self-defeating (making fun of yourself), affiliative (bantering with others) and self-enhancing (a general humorous outlook, able to see the comedy in most situations).

The researchers noted that an individual’s style of humour is associated with certain personality traits. Most toxically, aggressive humour can tip from gentle teasing into hostility or racist and sexist jokes, while self-defeating humour is linked to neediness and anxiety. Affiliative humour builds relationships but also relies on other people, so it’s difficult to deploy during, say, a global pandemic. ‘The best one by far is self-enhancing humour,’ says Julie Aitken Schermer, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, since it means that you can improve your mood without anybody else’s help.

That style is associated with traits of mental toughness, such as optimism, independence and confidence. ‘You may be doing your dishes and reflect back on a funny scene, and you can actually cheer yourself up,’ Schermer says. ‘You’re less likely to be depressed, feel lonely or engage in self-harm.’

Mark Shatz, a professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio University Zanesville and author of Comedy Writing Secrets, knows how important the right kind of humour can be. Seventeen years ago, he learned an unsettling fact about his wife: he thought that he was her second husband, but it turned out that he was actually her fourth.

They had been together for 10 years and, somehow, he never knew this. ‘How did I deal with it? My lovely friends gave me every article of clothing with the number four on it: “I couldn’t even place in the top three!”’ he says. His response began as self-defeating (beating himself up as he tried to figure out what the hell happened), then took an affiliative turn (looking to friends for distracting banter). Finally, he became more self-enhancing by adopting a new spin: he started wearing the number-four apparel. He wasn’t just in on the joke – he’d taken ownership of it.

These ideas come naturally to professionals. ‘Even when I feel like crap, when I get to the show, onstage, it lifts me up,’ says Stacy Kendro, a veteran New York comic. ‘I don’t want to call it a coping mechanism, because that makes it sound so clinical. But there are times when stand-up pretty much saved me.’

How to Hone Your Act

For his part, Federman’s self-enhancing mentality dates back to high school, when, after reading the best-selling self-help book Your Erroneous Zones, he decided that he alone was responsible for his feelings. He gave himself the power to reframe a stressful situation into something funny. While isolated during the pandemic, for example, he started up a basketball shooting competition – against himself. ‘One game was so intense, I had to go into a concussion protocol,’ he says, before pausing to reflect on his self-enhancing humour. ‘Comedians just look at life slightly askew,’ he says, ‘and that makes it fun, all the time.’

The problem is that it’s easy to slip into self-defeating mode, which correlates with low self-esteem, avoidance and even depression. (When I took the HSQ, I crushed this category, scoring in the 99th percentile with a 51. It was my highest score.) Schermer says that this sort of thinking – ‘Hey, guys, laugh at me. Maybe you’ll like me!’ – may develop in early childhood, when kids are trying to find ways to relate to one another.

Peter McGraw, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Humor Research Lab (HuRL for short) and author of the 2020 book Shtick to Business, a book about using humour to get ahead, says the HSQ is a tool to ‘help the introspective person make some positive steps’. Are you keeping your humour to yourself? Do you need to bring in other people? You can make this change to improve your mental health. ‘You don’t have to learn music theory in order to become a better pianist, but it helps,’ he says.

The best comedians, McGraw adds, are tinkerers who tell jokes to audiences big and small, then assess the reaction and adjust accordingly. You can do this in your personal life. Thomas Ford, a Western Carolina University psychology professor, suggests keeping a humour diary, where you write down everything you find funny, then study it later.

‘Maybe you hit someone with a wisecrack – the log would allow you to think, “Why did I do that? Is this something I did when I was insecure or nervous?”’ adds research consultant Olah. ‘This is something you work at. It’s a specific skill, just like carpentry or mountain climbing.’

My own HSQ scores explained a few nagging feelings that I’ve had. I realised that the jokes I tell most frequently, and those I find funniest, are on me. (I have no sense of direction, so friends call me ‘Maps’.) And I have been known to say dumb things that lead to repeated roastings. The experts say that this is self-defeating humour –healthy only in small doses. So, I decided to try rebooting my entire sense of humour.

Get the Laughs You Deserve

My quest to be the kind of guy who laughs easily at virtually anything – without being the punchline – began with writing down what amused me on social media. There was that map of Italian words for ‘vagina’ on Twitter and Monty Python’s fish-slapping dance on YouTube. In addition to self-defeating humour, I found that I have a tendency towards self-enhancing humour, which includes laughing by myself at stupid, silly things. (Sarcasm can be self-enhancing, too, so long as it’s not used in a hurtful way.) Then I took an extra step by calling friends and asking them to describe what they notice I find funny. My sense of humour is, well, repetitive, one said: ‘Your jokes are, like, every five seconds. It’s the constant search for the pun.’

I also took advice from Bagdonas, who suggests you can use funny TV shows or movies to enhance your world-view in general. ‘When we’re making time to watch something comedic before bed instead of a horror movie, we’re feeding our brains,’ she says.

Gradually, I began to feel more upbeat. The more open I was to laughter, the less down I felt. And I remembered McGraw’s point about how comedians constantly try out new lines and assess audience reaction – and at some point you want to test your material and concentrate on making it inclusive.

One day, during a writing class that I teach via Zoom, a student named Cat referred to a story she might write about her lifelong trouble finding the right dog. I’m not that much of a dog person, so I could have been gently self-defeating and recalled how a couple of dogs bit me when I was a kid, or I could have been aggressive by making fun of dogs to the group, which would have embarrassed the student. Instead, the dad joke that came to me hinged on wordplay. ‘I hear Cats and dogs don’t get along,’ I said. It wasn’t the funniest joke, but it brought the students together. They laughed. Affiliative humour! Another healthy style.

Next, my daughter sent me two photos from college, one of some pretty trees and one with some friends sitting around smoking a joint. I could have told her she must’ve been high to send me that second picture, but that would have been aggressive and not what I wanted. Instead, I verified that the trees were indeed pretty but admonished her not to smoke them.

She totally ignored me, but that’s the beauty of a self-enhancing joke. If she liked it, she laughed. If she didn’t, no one got hurt. Either way, I was starting to amuse myself.

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