You've got to laugh: why a sense of humour helps in dark times
Anna Moore 安娜·穆尔
We've seen humour play a role this year. One week into lockdown， the nation still in shock， the Les Mis spoof of One More Day， performed by the Marsh family in Kent racked up millions of views. The public fell gratefully on videos from out-of-work sports commentators commentating on their dogs or unclogging the shower drain. Twitter came alive with memes – loo roll， home educating and overeating featured heavily.
All this has been no surprise to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. They have spent five years studying the power of humour: watching hours of standup; interviewing comedians; training in the world's best comedy institutions and teaching it at Stanford University. They've now written a book on their findings， entitled Humour， Seriously， and its message is that humour is an unappreciated， underused superpower.
“Some people believe this is too serious a time to laugh，” says Bagdonas， speaking via Zoom from her home in California. “But this is when we need humour more than ever. With this global pandemic， the shift to remote working， loneliness and depression rising precipitously， many of us have never felt so disconnected. When we laugh with someone – whether through a screen or 2m apart – we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthens our emotional bonds in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible. Studies show it makes us more resilient， creative and resourceful.”
Humour， Seriously presents a huge body of research to illustrate why and how humour works. Laughter triggers the “happy hormones” and suppresses cortisol， the stress hormone. It increases blood flow， and is a muscle relaxant. One 15-year Norwegian study of more than 50，000 people found that those with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those who scored lower. Another study of recently bereaved people showed that those able to laugh when recalling their loved ones reported less anger and less distress.
Despite this， warn Aaker and Bagdonas， we're falling over a humour cliff. Their own survey of 1.4 million people in 166 countries found that rates of laughter plunge at the age of 23 – just as we “grow up”. Other research backs this up. It has been found that a four-year-old laughs 300 times a day; a 40-year-old 300 times every 10 weeks. Aaker and Bagdonas say this is due to a number of factors. There's the belief that adulthood and the work place is “serious business”. There's the fear of a joke failing – and also， as we become adults， the “born with it” myth. You're either funny or you're not.
Their book shows that there are many ways to introduce levity， to live on the precipice of a smile and be open to humour without having to crack jokes. But for those who do wish to improve their comedy， Aaker and Bagdonas examine the anatomy of humour to reveal just what makes something funny. Truth is comedy's beating heart， so Aaker and Bagdonas suggest “finding the funny” by “mining your life”. Notice the absurdities of our world. What would an alien find illogical？ What's irrational about you？ What makes you angry， frightened， envious， embarrassed？ Use your moments of pain， too. There's a saying: “Comedy equals tragedy， plus time.”
In times like these， though， this is the hardest balance to strike. When comedian Gyles Brandreth recently cracked a Covid joke on This Morning， some viewers complained. “It's so tough，” says Bagdonas. “Humour is one of the most context-dependent things in the world.” The three factors to consider when making jokes， she says， are truth， pain and distance. “Examine the truth， ask how great is the pain and is it distant enough？” she says. “The closer the truth gets to the very real pain people are experiencing， the greater the risk of offending.” So， when a Covid joke is cracked on breakfast TV， the audience is unknown and wildly varied and the individual differences in pain and distance are vast. “We're in a hard place， but we can still joke about it，” says Bagdonas.