How Humor Can Save Us From Ourselves
Written by Charles Cassidy MPhys, Director of Evidence-based Wisdom
“This isn’t funny. America has just entered the darkest of chapters. How on earth can I be laughing?” That’s what I thought to myself after cracking up over the Saturday Night Live skit by Aziz Ansari about the election of Donald Trump.
Television coverage of January’s inauguration had left me emotionally spent, and now it felt really, really good to laugh. Yet I also felt guilty about my laughter. Is it right to laugh when it feels like Trump’s election has brought Armageddon much closer to reality?
In hard times, humor is often a source of comfort. But is there more to it than that? I had assumed that joking about Trump’s election or the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (also known as “Brexit”) was simply a form of denial, a way to avoid facing the challenges of an uncomfortable new reality. As I sat down with the nation of America, gathered around their TV sets and laptops, it occurred to me that perhaps something more profound was happening. Humor’s role in our response couldn’t be so easily limited to comfort-and-denial. In fact, the latest research suggests that to take a wise decision, it really helps to have a sense of humor.
THE SCIENCE OF WISDOM AND HUMOR
It may come as a surprise to learn that both wisdom and humor are today subjects of serious scientific inquiry. Even more unexpected, perhaps, is research suggesting the two fields are closely related. In 2013, neuroscientist Dilip Jeste published a review of the various definitions of wisdom currently used by the scientific community. The review startled many with its suggestion that humor is actually a key component of wisdom.
This struck me as odd at first, but upon reflection, the connection became more apparent. Much-loved cartoon strips, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, often touch on life’s biggest dilemmas. Wrapping wise insights in pithy one-liners, such humor seems to gives us licence to ask serious questions of each other.
Humor has a rich tradition of helping communities navigate difficult times. For example, consider the classic figure of the dry-witted, wise Jewish rabbi, captured unforgettably in Krusty the Clown’s father in The Simpsons. Jewish community leader Rabbi Reuven Bulka is crystal clear about the role of humor in gaining a broader, wiser perspective: “By laughing at our fate, it is as if we were stepping out of a situation and looking at it from a distance, as if we were outside observers, so to speak.”
Jeffrey Dean Webster, Professor of Psychology at Langara College in Vancouver and member of the Gerontological Society of America, has been working on the connection between wisdom and humor for some time. His research suggests that there are 5 components to wisdom: emotional regulation, reflection, openness, experience, and humor. In fact, his work suggests that humor is critical to wise behavior.
Hah! I was already starting to feel much better about laughing.
WISE HUMOR, NOT MEAN JOKES
All the same, I still couldn’t completely shake off my sense of unease about laughing. In social situations, humor can be wielded as a weapon and can seem to me pretty much like the antithesis of the compassion which leading researchers associate with wisdom. However, Webster stresses that wise humor does not refer to sarcasm or malicious teasing.
Wise humor, in fact, is quite the opposite.
In a recent interview, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Jeffrey Dean Webster his thoughts on this point. He explained that the type of humour referred to in his research “included not taking oneself too seriously, developing an ironic stance towards life, using humor to put others at ease, and as a way to cope with difficult life stressors.”
WISDOM, HUMOR & THE SCIENCE OF PERSPECTIVE-SHIFTING
I’m a big fan of Aziz Ansari. However, as masterfully as he was entertaining the Saturday Night Live studio audience, comedians don’t readily spring to mind when we think of wisdom. Surely, jokers are fools, and foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. Granted, I was laughing, but I wasn’t feeling particularly any wiser. However, as the show went on and thoughts of Webster’s wise humor jiggled around in my brain, the connection started to seem less, well, laughable.
The latest research indicates that at the very heart of wise behavior is perspective-shifting, the ability to consider a situation from more than one point of view. And this turns out to also be at the very heart of comedy. One of the popular theories of why something is funny is called The Incongruity Theory of Humor. The theory suggests that, to understand a joke, you often need to step outside your first position and adopt a new position.
For example, consider the following joke, rated the funniest joke in the world in an experiment conducted by British Psychologist Richard Wiseman:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. “My friend is dead! What should I do?” The operator replies, “Calm down, sir. I can help. First make sure that he’s dead.” There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Ok, now what?”
This only makes sense once you recognize that there are alternative ways of interpreting the phrase “First make sure he’s dead.”
In a similar way, to gain a wiser understanding of a disagreement, you often need to step outside your first position and adopt a new perspective. For example, your father-in-law votes for the other political party, which you consider unfair because it is anti-welfare, but he believes fairness means “reward in proportion to work done.” The research suggests that humor and wisdom both rely on the ability to simultaneously adopt multiple perspectives. So might comedy even train the wisdom muscle? It’s far too early to say, but it’s an intriguing prospect.
If this is the case, perhaps Aziz wasn’t simply helping us to ignore Armageddon. He was preparing us to respond to a crisis with wisdom.
THE THREE WISE WEAPONS OF HUMOR – PRACTICAL ACTIONS
The science of both wisdom research and the study of humor suggest there are three main ways that humor can lead to wise behavior. Here they are, with suggestions of how we might put them into action:
- Understanding Reality – irony and gentle self-mocking can loosen your grip on a narrow perspective, allowing for a broader view of a situation.ACTION: LIGHTEN UP – TAKE YOURSELF LESS SERIOUSLY, BE OPEN TO NEW PERSPECTIVES
- Building Bridges – science and wisdom literature stress the importance of self-awareness and knowing one’s own biases, described neatly by the ancient Greek maxim “Know Thyself”. Humor can be used as a tool to indicate awareness of your own side’s shortcomings, as a way of bridging the gap to others. As Victor Borge said, “Laughing is the shortest distance between two people.”ACTION: REACHING OUT – SHARE A SELF-DEPRECATORY JOKE TO BRIDGE GAP TO ADVERSARIES IN DEBATE
- Delivering Insights – satire and humor allow you to make your point in entertaining and less confrontational ways.ACTION: SUGAR THE PILL – DELIVER YOUR INSIGHTS WRAPPED IN HUMOR
So, Aziz Ansari was not simply enabling me to hide from reality. In fact, research suggests that humour can play a critical role in our response to challenging times. It can increase our understanding of a situation by introducing us to new perspectives. Humour can help build our resilience so we can rally to respond, rather than running down and burning out. It can also help us build empathy with our adversaries. And finally, like Aziz Ansari in his SNL cold open, it can help us present our case in a warm and human fashion.
It seems wise humor is a weapon that can play a part in both improving our lives and charting a path forward through the uncertain political landscape.
Perhaps wise humor is no laughing matter after all.
- Do you think you could use gentle self-mocking to allow yourself to see a situation from a broader perspective?
- Could you try, carefully, to use humor to take the heat out of a confrontation?
- Can you think of how you might use humor to demonstrate self-awareness to opponents and even perhaps use it to build bridges?
- Could humor play a part in the way you share your insights with others?