A Laughing Matter

My feet patted rhythmically along on the marathon course, my body feeling invigorated. And then IT happened at mile 21. As my eyes flicked back up from checking my watch, a vision of two hills stood side by side before merging back into one, dancing with wooziness in my head. I figured it was just a fluke, but when I looked down and back up again to test that idea, double vision and dizziness nudged me again. And when we’re talking about someone who shudders at the mere thought of Disneyland’s spinning teacups, well…

“Uh-oh. That can’t be good,” I thought.  

But right then, in the sage words of The Rolling Stones, I didn’t get what I wanted, but I got just what I needed. A joke. It floated through my mind like an angel, a divine messenger of ridiculous humor.

A guy walks into his doctor’s office and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I lift my arm!” And the doctor says, “So don’t lift your arm!”

Comedy (OK, admittedly bad comedy) worked its magic as I saw the light and heeded the joke’s wisdom, telling myself with a chuckle, “So don’t look down!”

Suddenly, what was unpalatable and disconcerting became amusing and non-threatening, something I could accept, work with, and manage, even though I certainly didn’t like it. That joke helped me finish the race and earn a new personal record.                 

Humor is a Human’s Best Friend

Comedians deserve deep, heartfelt gratitude. They’re not just funny. We actually need them. George Valliant, a renowned psychiatrist and researcher on adult development, viewed humor as a healthy kind of psychological armor. Sigmund Freud even gave comedy a reverent nod, observing that “humor can be regarded as the highest of these defensive processes.” Indeed, it has the potential to protect and elevate us in a host of ways. Humor is linked to contentment in relationships as well as self-esteem and cheerfulness. It acts as a psychological safeguard for people coping with the aftermath of a trauma, including firefighters and survivors of terror attacks and their partners. It even cushions us against the harmful impact that unflattering stereotypes can have on our performance, an effect known as stereotype threat. Moreover, education on how to use humor in daily life results in greater hopefulness, cheerfulness, confidence, and mastery over time. However, comedy’s ability to heal and serve us hinges on how we wield it. Let’s check out four types of humor.

Some of These Jokes Are Not Like the Others

Self-Enhancing Humor

When we use self-enhancing humor, we’re donning a healthy mental shield. It lends us a hand in framing troublesome moments in a fresh, more agreeable light, transforming the sour lemons life can hurl our way into lemonade. But even if we can’t reframe our situation, or we don’t want to, a dose of comedy helps us to elevate our spirits and soothe our disquiet. It was self-enhancing humor that mercifully came to the rescue in my moment of need. And The Dalai Lama XIV held out a shining gem of self-enhancing humor for us to draw from when he said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Affiliative Humor

We’re using affiliative humor as we bring light jokes and clever comments to the social mix. This beneficial brand of humor acts as a relationship glue, helping us to reach and connect with others, to entertain, to comfort, and to poke a little gentle, humble fun at ourselves. Steve Martin used affiliative humor when he said, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” Oscar Wilde’s observation that he can “resist everything except temptation” is another delightful example. 

Aggressive Humor

Aggressive humor is exactly what it probably sounds like. It’s an unhealthful type of humor that tears others down. Jokes that target any group of people (e.g., sexist, racist, ethnic, heterosexist, ageist, religious jokes) fall under this category. Mockery and sarcastic comments count too. Unsurprisingly, aggressive humor is associated with emotional distress, not only for people on the receiving end but also for those who use it. In other words, it’s a clear lose-lose for everyone involved. And, sadly, it’s also commonplace. As a case in point, I easily found plenty of sexist jokes, including this one: “Q: How do you know a woman is about to say something smart? When she starts her sentence with, ‘A man once told me…’”

Self-Defeating Humor

Self-defeating humor is another damaging form of comedy. It involves degrading and belittling ourselves or going along with others as they put us down. This kind of humor goes beyond making light-hearted fun of ourselves, which is akin to affiliative humor. It’s self-ridicule in the hope of winning people over, and it’s linked to emotional distress, feeling less satisfied with life, lower social self-confidence, and greater depression. Rodney Dangerfield gave us an illustration of self-defeating humor when he quipped: “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I wanted a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.”

Making Humor Work for You

OK, let’s be honest—2016 has been a highly eventful and stressful year, and it’s not even over yet. We still have the holidays coming, which understandably bring their own strains and snags for many of us. So how can we call upon our amusing right-hand helper to uplift us and give us just what we need as we step toward the holidays and 2017? Here are a few strategies: