How humour can change the way we act, what we think and how we feel
Everyone loves a good chuckle, and laughter is widely acknowledged as a potent medicine. But can having a sense of humour also make us better people?
“When humour goes, there goes civilisation,” said Erma Bombeck, the housewife-turned-humourist who wrote “gentle, self-deprecating humour” in her newspaper column for 30 years. And she may have been onto something.
Most of us value humour — the ability to be amusing, to find things funny and to laugh at ourselves — and it has been shown to be fundamental to the existence of our species.
Humour is a crucial part of human interaction, and evolutionary scientists have generally taken the presence of laughter in pre-historic tribes as a sign that society was doing okay.
But if humour is so important, why has it failed to capture the imagination of our major thinkers?
The answer, argues Mark Alfano, a Professor of Philosophy, is that humour is often seen as an unserious subject of inquiry.
“Humour is not by nature a serious topic, and so it can be seen as trivial, but I think it’s a huge mistake to treat it that way,” said Professor Alfano, a research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
“The reason why humour is so important to human interactions essentially boils down to the way it functions as a testing mechanism for whether you share someone's values.”
Having a similar sense of humour — finding the same things funny, and not funny — has been found to have a positive effect on our affiliations with others.
But we often don’t respond to humorous things in the same way.
In Sex, Aggression, and Humour: Responses to Unicycling, a British researcher proposed that humour develops from aggression caused by male hormones, a finding inspired by the fact that most men mocked and laughed at him while he rode his unicycle in public, while women more often praised him.
This brings to mind the rather bleak view, most commonly associated with English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that humour is chiefly a way of exerting superiority and mocking the weak.
“It’s not a necessary part of humour, but I would argue that superiority is associated with a lot of humour — it's a way of feeling above something, of looking down your nose at it,” Professor Alfano told Impact.
However, both Hobbes and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that this feeling of contempt wasn’t always a bad thing.
“If you think an attitude of contempt is never a good thing to have, then you'll think humour that involves this feeling of superiority is always bad,” Professor Alfano said. “But both Hobbes and Nietzsche thought that sometimes it's just true that you're superior, and in that case it’s okay to feel that way.”
Freud’s triangle of humour
The humourist Erma Bombeck likely had the three things necessary for a sense of humour: she could tell a funny joke, she could appreciate one and, perhaps most importantly, she could laugh at herself.
Professor Alfano argues that this producer-consumer-object triangle, first proposed by Sigmund Freud, is where a sense of humour finds its home.
“A lot of the philosophy of humour that we see published nowadays just focuses on the producer and the consumer of humour (the person telling the joke and the person laughing), but it ignores the third corner of the triangle,” he said. “Most humour is about someone or something — the object of humour — and ignoring the object makes it hard to understand why it's so important to be able to laugh at yourself.”
If you can’t admit your own foibles or see the funny side of your failures, you can’t correct them, says Professor Alfano, but “being able to laugh at yourself is an indicator that you don't take yourself too seriously and that you're capable of seeing your own flaws, which is essential to self-improvement”.
Humour as a coping mechanism
There is a common view among psychologists and neuroscientists that humour is primarily a coping mechanism, a way of reducing anxiety when faced with situations that prompt discomfort.
“I think that’s right,” Professor Alfano told Impact. But he added that this was far from a complete explanation of the purpose of humour.
“There are lots of ways to reduce anxiety — you can take an Ambien, or have a beer,” he said. “What I'm trying to do is to spell out what makes humour particularly distinctive.”
While researching the use of humour as a coping mechanism, Professor Alfano collected images of tattoos on the bodies of cancer patients going through chemotherapy.
“They use these tattoos to make fun of themselves, and on the face of it, this might seem a little bit crazy, but I think there is something quite wise to it because what they're doing is saying, 'Yes, I'm suffering, but I can still find a point of view from which my suffering is not the most serious thing about me’,” he said.
“I think that way of using humour to divide yourself into pieces and being both the one who looks down, and the one who is looked down upon, can be valuable. If you're laughing at yourself, you are the butt of the joke, but you're also the one who's taking the superior attitude. It's not like being laughed at by someone else.”
The light and the dark of humour
Scott Weems, author of the book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, characterises humour as “a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks”.
Humour is one way of dealing with conflict. Think of the clever kid at school who used jokes as a way of saving himself from the coward punches of the classroom bully.
“One way that humour helps with conflict resolution is that people can display their intelligence through the making of humour, and if you win that contest, then you don't have to resort to physical violence to resolve conflict,” Professor Alfano said.
Joking socially is also a way of bonding with people, a way of forming groups and alliances.
“We use humour to find out who our friends are,” he said. “That said, if you and I are laughing together and some third party is not laughing, we're excluding them and that can lead to conflict as well, so it's not all just puppies and roses.”
There is no doubt that humour, at its worst, can be nasty and dangerous. It can reinforce stereotypes and spread undesirable ideas. Jokes can be racist, like Roseanne Barr’s offensive tweet, or sexist and vile, like Barry Hall’s crude on-air quip.
“When someone makes a joke that's simply not funny or in bad taste or inappropriate to laugh at, it can invite us to adopt an emotional perspective from which the thing looks unimportant or unworthy or valueless,” Professor Alfano said. “Doing that to a person or a group that doesn't deserve it can be dangerous. It can be not only unkind but also part of a campaign of authoritarian control.”
Political humour, however, does have its positives. At its best, it can be potent way of delivering truth. Make someone laugh at something dark or serious, as British comedian John Oliver regularly does, and you may allow them to see more clearly the thing they're laughing at.
So how does humour make us better people?
It’s probably unsurprising that humour is one of the most valued traits we look for in a potential partner. After all, couples who laugh together report having higher-quality relationships. And who would want to be with someone who can’t take a joke?
Professor Alfano’s research on obituaries shows that, when reflecting on the life of a loved one, we tend to treasure their capacity to laugh and make others laugh above most other things.
“Obituaries tend to describe the person who has recently died as a good person, and also to describe what made their life worth living, and sense of humour pops up in both of those regards — it’s part of what people envision as a good and enjoyable life, a life worth living, that you're able to laugh,” he said.
“Humour makes people more enjoyable to be around, it makes them more lovable, sometimes more admirable, so in that way it does make them a better person.”
And while humour doesn’t guarantee happiness, it provides us with laughter, one of the essential ingredients of a better life.
To quote Erma Bombeck once again, “If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it.”
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Professor Mark Alfano’s recent work has explored the moral significance and value of humour and laughter. He is Associate Professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Professor of Philosophy at ACU, and a research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.