Wednesday, July 27, 2022 @ 7:57 PM

Even though it may be a rough time for many folks, we all need to experience humor. Not just laughter, either… we need laughter for physical and mental health.

I want to share how important it is to learn how to laugh… at ourselves.

That’s a LOT harder than it sounds. It requires a tremendous amount of confidence, a huge brain, and a powerful sense of belief in our sense of self. It takes bravery, honesty, and, most critically, patience. For some, it may be a lot of work, but it is worth every second of it. Pulling it off allows us to find a sense of joy even in our darkest times. It will enable us to hang on and even pull ourselves back up… because it’s FUN.

It’s really easy these days to forget how to laugh at ourselves or things. Political strife, war, the pandemic… it is a time of chaos and conflict, and if we are ever going to regain and rebuild a sense of peace, we will need to learn how to take ourselves much less seriously. We need to remember that not every single thing is always a matter of life-and-death, of absolutely critical importance, or seriousness. We must give ourselves permission to enjoy our lives. We admire people who are in difficult times yet can always seem to find something positive or funny they can laugh or comment about.

We’ve got first to change how we see ourselves.

Start here… what is it that you find funny? When was the last time you laughed, full and loud, and felt joy rising within you without restraint or inhibition? Seriously, try and remember, write it down. We may have to become introspective for a while because everybody’s sense of humor is different, so different approaches may be necessary. Humor changes and evolves with time, which is why we get confused by what “the kids” are into these days. It’s also why we tolerate and repeatedly laugh each time a 4-year-old tells us another joke (or the same joke) about why the chicken crossed the road. That’s ok… we need to know what we find funny to determine the style.

There are generally four “styles” of humor that we’ll get into in a bit, based not on what we find funny but on how we use the feeling of “funny” to change our emotions. Our brains are complicated, and we unconsciously seek humor to help ourselves process the emotions that come from stress. It’s why, when we’ve come through a particularly rough patch, we eventually hear something that cracks us up. We laugh, not because we want to, but because psychologically, we NEED to.

Humor works because there is an expectation, and then something that subverts that expectation. For instance, a knock-knock joke is often funny because I have absolutely no intention of opening the door. There are bears outside. One of my favorite comedians, Steve Martin, said that he would sometimes set up a joke that had no punch line; he would continually increase the tension of the story with tangents and irrelevant details, delaying the set-up and the expectation of an expectation for so long, that eventually someone would laugh because of the innate absurdity of the “joke.”

Once you know what you find funny, could you look at it? Strip it down to the barest parts, and examine it intellectually. Compare it to the ‘Four Styles of Humor’; Affiliative, Aggressive, Self-Defeating, and Self-Enhancing. When we do that, we can figure out what motivates our humor and then use THAT knowledge to find it intentionally. We can teach ourselves to get the joke!

Let’s break down the Four Styles. Keep in mind that our personal senses of humor are often a mix of two or three of the styles:

Affiliative Humor is the kind of fun that we use to fit ourselves in with a group of other people. Inside jokes are the kind that develops organically within the family, friend group, or workplace, for instance. I have a partner in my therapy practice that I have been messing with for decades, constantly attempting to get him to laugh. He’s a tough nut to crack, very stone-faced, sooooo professional, but he gives as good as he gets. We’ve pranked each other through the mail, through gifts left in each other’s offices, we traded a whale sculpted from lard back and forth for a few years… Affiliative humor can get REALLY weird on a long enough timeline. Another example from my family is the ritual of giving a can of soup as a gift for Christmas. It’s heart-warming and affirming because it relies on a previously set expectation; it cements acceptance as a part of that social unit and tends to build a sense of camaraderie and unity.

Aggressive Humor is the spiciest of humor. Aggressive humor points out subversion of expectation through mockery, either of an event or a person involved. Think about most late-night shows and an AWFUL lot of stand-up sets. Usually, someone else is the butt of the joke. This type of humor is tricky, and we need to be careful how we use it; there is a psychological rush in landing a good quip at someone’s expense because it alters the power dynamics of that situation, and not always in a positive way. Terry Pratchett, an excellent author, said, “Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you’re laughing at people who are hurting, it’s not satire, it’s bullying.” (Read about bullying here). We must make sure that our use of the aggressive style doesn’t get away from us… use it to equalize power, not affirm it.

Self-Defeating Humor is a bit harshly named, but I didn’t name ‘em, so here we are. This kind of humor is the self-deprecating joking that takes one’s own position in the power dynamic and subverts it. My kids are both voracious readers, and for many years, they have joked with each other by giving book recommendations for the weirdest stuff, trying to “out read” the other, not to prove that they’re the wiser brother, but to prove that they’re not. This is another style that can be tricky; it requires the person to use humor to know that it’s not true and not dig too deep into their insecurities to get the laugh. Some things are joking matters, and some are not; it takes a good deal of nuance for someone using Self-defeating humor to know the difference and weigh the value of self- mockery. Groucho Marx was the KING of this style, and his line “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members” is a beautiful example.

Self-Enhancing Humor is the Holy Grail, the brass ring we’re reaching for. It’s humor that bolsters our sense of self and reassures us that we can handle the stress we experience. We reach pure Self-enhancing style mastery when we can appreciate and find amusement in the subversion of expectations in our lives and laugh at how absurd and silly everything really is. When we don’t take ourselves so seriously, we can let stress and negativity roll off of us because it’s just ridiculous! Every one of us is a complicated and intricate miracle, molded by experiences and perspectives that nobody else can fully comprehend, full of ideas about heritage, culture, faith, and everything that makes us human. Are we worried about a traffic jam? That’s ludicrous. That’s silly. We’re incredible, and if we ease up on ourselves (and others), we can remember that. We can find humor, even in dark times, and find the will and drive to go on, to experience more, and mold ourselves into more peaceful people.

We have to laugh at ourselves sometimes. Just like in the Steve Martin example we mentioned above, as the tensions in our lives continue and increase, it will eventually become a necessity. So, take a look at the things that make you laugh, and, if you can, try and engage in more Self-Enhancing humor rather than poking fun at others. Look at how wonderful and hilarious and incredible you are. Rejoice and enjoy it! Revel in it! Laugh at yourself, and you’ll never miss the punch line.