Healing through Humour

Picture of By Cindy Zheng

By Cindy Zheng

Humour is crucial in many ways: to lighten a long lecture, ease a tense atmosphere, or even to survive the worst scenarios imaginable. There remains a thin line between being tactless and being funny. Not all kinds of humour are beneficial for us and others, and jokes can hurt as much as they can heal. Still, it is the most desirable trait to have, and can be the only thing that makes your day a little bit more livable. Because one day, we will probably laugh about it.

Have you ever laughed at a really bad, unfortunate moment? Like during a serious lecture, at a sexist joke, or during a funeral? In a way, humour signifies a loss of control and is thus related to being improper. However, it could therefore be the most authentic and honest thing we have. More than indelicate giggles, humour is an underrated tool that brings out something special, and essential within us.

More than a defence mechanism

If you’ve ever watched Friends, you might remember that Chandler uses “humour as a defence mechanism”. In his case, it has to do with his parents’ divorce, leading him to make jokes when he’s uncomfortable.

This awkward usage is just one facet of humour, though. The term itself comes from Ancient Greek, meaning fluid or moisture. The theory is that humour was viewed as a fluid that blurred and diluted the hard realities of life into digestible parts.

Despite its ancient roots, in Western Philosophy, humour has continuously been underappreciated, with the focus often being on its vulgarity. The same goes for psychology, where it has been notoriously understudied, despite its numerous benefits, obvious importance, and ubiquity. In fact, The European Journal of Humour Research (EJHR) was only established in 2012. However, Humour research is catching up

Three ways to make a joke

There are three classic theories of humour: Superiority Theory, Relief Theory, and Incongruity Theory. It’s not difficult to understand; the Superiority Theory states that humour is based on ridicule, specifically making jokes about other people’s misfortunes. Think sexist jokes, racial stereotypes, and bullies.

The Relief Theory focuses on the relief of nervous excitement or emotional tension. It explains why sex and violence are such popular themes in comedy, as they are the main sources of repression in society. Relief Theory suggests that humour is foremost a coping tool.

Lastly, the Incongruity Theory deals with jokes that work because they are unexpected, or deal with a somehow surprising mix of elements. Absurdity matters and nonsense can amuse us in a different way than the previous theories have displayed.

In the end, all theories can be related to each other. To my knowledge, the secret recipe for the way humour works has not been discovered yet (although many have tried and failed). It’s probably less interesting for non-comedians to understand how jokes work anyway, and more interesting to understand the impact of a good laugh.

Laughing through the pain

Everyone suffers from something, and in my case, it’s a skin disorder called atopic eczema. It’s an issue about 30 % of babies and toddlers face, or rather their parents, and only the truly lucky and unique 3 % of those carry it all the way to adulthood.

Like other skin issues or generally other medical situations, mostly only those that suffer from it truly understand what kinds of pains it entails. The limited knowledge of others often leads to misunderstandings, wrong assumptions, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

However, this mental toll can be eased. One of the few reliefs I’ve found, other than my numerous emollients, are eczema memes. Memes that are focused and catered specifically to people with eczema, and are (unfortunately) relatable to only them.

Why do I find laughing at memes crucial in my health journey? Well, psychological stress is a real trigger in most illnesses, including skin disorders. Although the whole meme culture can seem (and likely is) pretty silly, it can provide some comfort when nothing else can.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to eczema patients. It works for virtually every other misunderstood and/or marginalized groups; Meme culture shows how humour can be a generational force, bringing together people from all over the place.

Reflecting together, through the magic of memes

The Facebook group “subtle asian traits” first exploded more than two years ago. “subtle asian traits” has provided a culturally confused collective of young people around the world a space where they can humorously discuss their joys and frustrations.

Some, if not most, depicted humour is based on stereotypes that have deep and problematic roots. However, if jokes are made by members of said marginalized group themselves, it takes away its threatening nature. In this way, they might even help to view painful experiences in a more positive light.

Meme groups are a nontrivial cultural phenomenon, which offer a platform for self-reflection. During this pandemic, they have even shown to be impactful in talking about disinformation and supporting measures.

Funny, because it’s true

Especially in times of crises, (dark) humour can be a small thing to comfort ourselves. Humour research suggests that themes for jokes usually reflect the most salient issues at hand, since those are of importance to us. In these particular times we live in, dealing with uncertainty and fear, humour can aid by reducing negative emotions, or replacing them with positive ones.

The mixture of laughing while being incredibly distressed sounds confusing, yet it is inherently human. The film industry has long caught up on that.

And the tears are real

Tragicomedy is a genre describing the dual nature of reality, portraying both a comic and tragic view of life simultaneously. It’s meant for media that present both absurdity and seriousness in one frame. Similar genres are Dramedy, which balances comedic and serious elements and is used more for TV series, and black comedy, which is exclusively for taboo topics. But tragicomedies in particular have been described as the defining genre of our twisted reality.

More recent examples that come to my mind are the TV series Fleabag, the French movie Intouchables, and the Netflix animation Bojack Horseman. Most recently the South Korean film Parasite would also qualify. All these had audiences in their seats laughing nervously and shedding tears, unsure if out of amusement or sadness.

There are many more examples that successfully display how humour is not just there for jokes, but to make dire situations even more realistic. And the healing power of humour on screen translates to reality.

The life-saving ingredient

The proof that being humorous in a hopeless situation can save lives is not a fictional idea; Holocaust survivor and psychiarist Viktor Frankl talked about its necessity from his first-hand experience.

In his autobiography, he explains how humour gives humans the “ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. […] The attempt to develop a sense of humour and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”

Staying humorous is self-preservation – Viktor Frankl recalls how joking among fellow prisoners led to laughter that lifted spirits and defied evil. More than a survivor’s story, it highlights that we should take humour seriously – also in everyday life.

The curing power of laughter

Humour is vital in the healing process; And there are several people advocating for it as a serious solution to terminal diseases. Research has shown how humour is important for cancer patients, even advising doctors to include it in treatment, the same goes for the general nurse-patient relationships. Additionally, numerous individual accounts argue how it is essential for combating illness in general.

There are also practical approaches, such as laughter therapy. NGO ComedyCures recommends 100 laughs daily to help fight medical problems, next to a personalized wellness joke book, getting a humour buddy and watching humorous movies (and also have a tumor humor meme collection).

So, there we have it – laughter saves lives. But of course, with all things, there’s a counterargument to this one as well.

Macabre, hopeless or optimistic?

If we go with the previous assumption, wouldn’t comedians be the healthiest people on the planet? Well, according to this study, they might even die younger. Titled “Does comedy kill?”, researchers found out that the funnier comedian in a comedy team is three times more likely to die prematurely than their partner.

It’s related to something called the sad clown paradox – the idea that people who make others laugh for a living often struggle offstage. It’s an open secret that many well-known stand-up comedians are or were depressed and find their material in their misfortunes. The question might be, is humour helping to cope, as mentioned previously, or adding to the pain?

It might depend on the style of humour. A paper from 2003 established 4 kinds of humour, establishing a Humor Style Questionnaire; Self-enhancing humour, affiliative humour (to enhance relationships with others), aggressive humour and self-defeating humour. The first two are positive dimensions, while the latter are negative.

Depending on which kind of humour one mostly uses, things such as mood, self-esteem, optimism, well-being, etc. are affected. The questionnaire has been called into question (pun intended), but the fact that humour can be hurtful and self-depreciating instead of healing is valid.

Does that mean we need to be more careful with jokes, use irony punctuation for every kind of banter, and tread lightly?

If you can’t change it, laugh about it

Maybe we should turn to the “greatest humourist of all time” for a piece of final advice. Mark Twain is mostly known for authoring “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and his famous fondness for humour, even calling it “mankind’s greatest blessing”.

However, in his autobiography, he also mentions how it cannot survive on its own, it is “only a fragrance, a decoration”. He further states that “the secret source of humour itself is not joy but sorrow”.

There’s no right or wrong answer, there rarely is. Humour, especially for those that live off it, might be both poison and remedy. Life is full of contradictions, maybe even one big paradox. If the only way we keep going is by laughing about our misfortunes, isn’t that a wonderful way to live?


Cover: Marija Zaric

Edited by: Rita Alves

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