The Benefits of Laughing at Ourselves

A father and son laughing together, learning to laugh at ourselves

Of Storms and Presidents

Farce in the White House is nothing new these days, but we may have hit a new low. Does our president have such a tender ego that he can’t abide being wrong even about the weather? As you may have heard, he predicted that the hurricane, Dorian, would strike Alabama. Now he’s furious because the weather service in that area pointed out he was wrong. It didn’t even rain there. [1]

Yet our president will never admit he made a mistake, not even a petty one, so he’s mad. Is he fuming at the storm itself, cursing God for not making it rain where he wanted it to? Does he think himself so powerful?

That seems to be part of his problem, imagining he’s a match for God or that he is God. But he’s also taking his insecurity and inflated self-importance out on those hapless forecasters who did the job we expect them to, shared what they saw and what they knew. Now, in the face of our president’s temper tantrum, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is backtracking. What sane adult would collude with this man in his delusions? Fears for our survival make us do shameful things, even change facts to satisfy someone who takes himself way too seriously.

Laughing in the Face of Farce

Actually, I don’t know what is going on in our president’s head. I’m making assumptions. From what I can tell, though, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. What an unfortunate fate.

This drama around the hurricane would itself be laughable if our president weren’t so powerful. Not only is he drawing attention away from those displaced by the storm, but, as NPR points out, meteorologists are starting to wonder if predicting the weather will become a political act. [2]

There are complex reasons why our country has arrived at this place and many problems we need to address to make things better. Some of them are systemic, oppressions and aggressions that have been around a long time. Systems everywhere have been more or less unfair for as long as we’ve been human, but just because we’ve never managed to create a completely just and humane society doesn’t mean we should stop trying. If there is freedom and peace anywhere, it’s because those who believe in the power of love have not given up; those who hold themselves humbly continue to welcome everyone at the table; and those who believe in joy and know how to laugh at themselves have never stopped trying to share their happiness.

Learning to laugh at ourselves may be a key to our salvation. Wherever you find a tyrant, whether in the home, the workplace, or in politics, you will find a miserable human being who does not know how to laugh in a free, generous, and open-hearted way. Our president would be better off if he could find pleasure in compassionate humor rather than in mocking others. All of us would be happier if we would stop making fun of those around us and instead laugh at our own idiosyncrasies.

A father and son laughing together, learning to laugh at ourselves

The Benefits of Laughter

It’s normal to enjoy play and laughter. By the time children are six months old, they eagerly engage in tickling games and peek-a-boo. As they get older, they start to laugh at silly antics, puns, and incongruous stories. Assuming they are raised with some measure of love and security, children eventually learn to laugh at themselves. This benefits them, and it benefits society.

Laughter in general reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes. When we laugh, our brains release dopamine, giving us pleasure. We produce endorphins, which ease pain, and serotonin, which makes us feel happier. [3] Less stress and more enjoyment makes us feel cheerful. We treat one another better.

It’s important to identify the kind of laughter we’re talking about, however. Are we making jokes at the expense of others? If so, we’re expressing anger, and that doesn’t benefit us at all. Anger wears down our bodies and makes us grumpier. It ruptures relationships. Sarcasm and mockery make lives worse.

The laughter that eases our tension and strengthens bonds is what researchers at the University of Granada in Spain call “affiliative” laughter. [4] This includes kindly jokes and amusing remarks that enhance ourselves and others.

Laughing at Ourselves

People in positions of authority or power find that a little self-deprecating humor makes others trust them more. Employees see them as better leaders. [5] Those who laugh at themselves are more cheerful. [6] Whether their laughter makes them happy or their happiness makes them less prone to take offense, we don’t know. We do know that laughing at ourselves is good for us.

This is not an excuse to minimize the pain of others. It’s not our job to tell people to “learn to take a joke,” or “stop taking things so so seriously,” or “get over it.” Nor does it help to be told to “lighten up.” Some things aren’t funny. Some are cruel.

Besides, such advice makes people feel unheard, unseen, and uncared for. Those in positions of privilege of one kind or another have used phrases like that against women, people of color, and the poor. When we refuse to honor the perspective of those in pain, we help keep them “in their place.”

So what if we witness someone using humor to abuse another person? Speaking up may be an option, though sometimes we don’t know how. We may feel helpless, as I once did when I witnessed a parental figure demeaning a teenager in public. To step in can backfire. We can’t stop every individual instance of aggression, ignorance, or shaming, though we can sometimes make a difference, and we can push for institutional change.

Not the Center of the Universe

But at the moment, we’re talking laughing at ourselves. If more of us could remember we aren’t the center of the universe, that by itself might help.

At the age of sixteen, I was riding home on a bus, gazing out the window, when we passed a park. There I saw a mother push her child on a swing. I realized that while I’d been gone that day, those two had played, eaten, maybe bickered. They didn’t know I existed. There they were, living an entire life that had nothing to do with me. In a deep, visceral way, I realized I was not the center of the universe. I was no more important than that mother and child, than the other travelers on the bus. Time passed, the world turned, and it wasn’t about me.

I know. How obvious can you get? My only defense is that I tend to be pretty self absorbed. It took me a while to figure out that though the sun seems to revolve around the earth, it really doesn’t. What you see is not always what you get. To understand reality, I had to look more deeply than my own skin, further than my own heart.

This takes empathy, compassion, and kindness. These are traits of people who can laugh heartily at themselves. If you you don’t consider yourself empathetic or kind, you can develop these traits. Learning to laugh at yourself might be one way to do it.

Learning to Laugh at Ourselves

In a study by Jennifer Hofmann, a researcher in Zurich, participants enrolled in a two-month course to learn how to develop a sense of humor. They started out listing what they found funny, then surrounding themselves with that. Once they were comfortable with laughing at other things, they learned to laugh at themselves. To do this, they listed things they didn’t like about themselves, then organized the list from least painful to most. Starting with the lighter issues and progressing to the more difficult ones, they practiced their self-deprecating jokes in front of friends. [7]

If you’re going to do this, be careful. Make sure the jokes are self-deprecating, not self-denigrating. Benevolence is as important in our self-directed humor as in the jokes we make about others. Also, if you are in a setting where you feel demeaned, making jokes about yourself will only intensify the power difference. Wait until you’re in a safe place, with loved ones, before laughing at your mismatched outfit or your tendency to brag or your laziness.

It’s not our business to make someone laugh at themselves, nor for us to laugh at them. It’s our business to find the humor in our own idiosyncrasies. Making fun of others is a kind of aggression. At best, such jibes are insensitive. At worst, they are cruel acts that need to be named and stopped.

The Importance of Humility

To find our way to a laughter that heals takes a certain amount of humility. We have to remember we aren’t the most important person in the world.

That moment when, through a bus window, I saw that mother and child at the park changed my life. Yes, I already knew the moon didn’t follow me around, and by then I’d learn to imagine another person’s viewpoint, but I hadn’t grasped how insignificant I was in the great scheme of things. Once I realized it deep in my bones, I felt more alive and connected, as if I’d had a mystical experience.

Describing it that way may seem silly, and I can laugh at my younger self, but I’m still kind of like that. Little things in life bring me joy, like simple “aha” moments and the sometimes mundane beauty of nature’s perfection. I can relate to the Gary Larson cartoon that shows a picture of a woman holding a tray of ice cubes, tears of joy in her eyes. With awe and delight, she cries out, “Perfect ice cubes again.”

Sometimes that’s me, and it’s kind of enjoyable. On my good days, I like being alive. I like to laugh, to sing, to watch the birds peck at insects and seeds in our yard. I enjoy stories, too, especially ones that use humor to reveal our common humanity.

The Story of the Sausage

You may know the one about the sausage. A couple are given three wishes. As they fantasize about what they should wish for, the wife becomes hungry and says, “I wish I had a big, juicy sausage right now.”

Poof! In front of her is a sausage on a plate.

Her husband gets mad. How could she be so stupid? Now they’ve wasted one wish. In fact, he’s so angry about it, he says, “I wish that sausage were attached to the end of your nose.”

Poof! From her nose hangs the sausage.

They try everything they can think of to get that sausage off, but it won’t budge. Finally, they use their last wish to get it back on the plate.

Finding the Joy in Laughter

This story could end any number of ways. The couple could lapse into a bitter silence. They could be content, realizing that at least now they had a sausage to share. Or they could recognize their foolishness, their tendency to talk before they think, and they could laugh with one another. Maybe they could even poke fun at how quickly greed overcame their finer feelings at the mere thought of riches. A little self-deprecating humor would bring them back together in kindness, compassion, and empathy.

Telling jokes and laughing at life’s absurdity can make us feel better. If we hide anger behind our teasing or use mockery in a misguided attempt to boost our self-esteem, or if we manipulate others with our humor, laughter only intensifies our resentment and bad temper. But if we learn to laugh with others, to build them up with humor, and to tease ourselves in a gentle and kind way, we will feel more alive, more relaxed, and more cheerful.

We might also find that benevolent humor enables us to cope better with the absurdities we find these days at work, in schools, in prisons, in our neighborhoods, in the White House. It’s not helpful to make fun of our president. Not really. True, people have used satire to protest against and minimize the harm done by tyrants. What helps each of us individually, though, is to bond with others by telling jokes that enhance our self-esteem and happiness.

Laughter is not our only tool to fight autocracy, nor should it be, but it is one tool. With it, we can create the world we want to see. We can generate more kindness. Besides, benevolent laughter is a lot of fun.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Baker, Peter and Sarah Mervosh, “Trump Storm Over Alabama Keeps Raging,” The New York Times, September 7, 2019, 1 and 15.
  2. Gonzalez, Richard, “NOAA Contradicts Weather Service, Backs Trump on Hurricane Threat in Alabama,” Science, National Public Radio, September 6, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/06/758532041/noaa-contradicts-weather-service-backs-trump-on-hurricane-threat-in-alabama, accessed September 7, 2019.
  3. “Humor, Laughter, and Those Aha Moments,” The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter, Spring 2010, Vol. 16, No. 2, https://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/HMS_OTB_Spring10_Vol16_No2.pdf, accessed 9/7/19.
  4. Sandoiu, Ana, “How Making Fun of Yourself Can Make You Happy,” Medical News Today, February 18, 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320952.php, accessed 9/7/19.
  5. “Leaders Who Can Laugh at Themselves Get a Thumbs Up,” Association for Psychological Science, December 9, 2014, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/leaders-who-can-laugh-at-themselves-get-a-thumbs-up.html, accessed 9/7/19.
  6. Beermann, Ursula and Willibald Ruch, “Can People Really Laugh at Themselves?”—Experimental and Correlational Evidence,” Emotion, 2011, Vol. 11, No. 3, 492-501, 498, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6d01/0bf601e5f8363802a92a1f2720346dc99f22.pdf, accessed 9/7/19.
  7. Wollan, Malia, “How to Laugh at Yourself,” The New York Times Magazine, April 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/09/magazine/how-to-laugh-at-yourself.html, accessed 9/7/19.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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