The Importance of Humour

Posted on 07 July 2011

I have heard some comedians describe what they are doing as “trivial”. Worse I have heard some comedians and researchers describe the purpose of humour as domination. They see it as being all about the put-downs. Certainly some humour can be on the trivial side and certainly some people focus on put-down humour. But humour can be immensely uplifting and valuable.

Resilience

When we are small humour is all about being flexible: allowing for the strangeness of the world and laughing at our own small misfortunes. Children fall on their bum, instead of seeing it as the end of the world, they laugh and go back to play. The experience may be summed up as “Fall down and go boom.”

As we get older our need for that sort of flexibility becomes greater not lesser. We must face more and more serious ups and downs, and despite it all we have to find the strength to pick ourselves up and keep moving. We don’t have to laugh specifically at events that are causing us grief. Any laughter is going to lift our attitude and make it easier to continue with our lives.

For this reason the medical profession has embraced humour as an important part of hospital stays with clown doctors and clown nurses helping people to improve their quality of life while healing or seeing their final days.

Health

Laughter is known to have measurable effects on peoples health.

Dr. Norman Shealy for a presentation made at the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine Symposium in 1993 shared the idea that a person’s attitude is extremely important in influencing brain chemicals which in turn affect the immune system.

Research by Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University has shown that laughter increases natural killer cells and antibodies. Laughter activates T immune cells and decreases stress hormones…Laughter not only affects the body’s immune system, it helps to control pain by causing relaxation, distracting a person from the pain, as well as changing one’s attitude and reducing anxiety.

Humor: A Powerful Coping Aid
BY SR. MARY CHRISTELLE MACALUSO, R.S.M., O.F.N., Ph.D.

As well as reducing stress, boosting the immune system, and providing physical pain relief, laughter is also a good aerobic activity that improves heart health.

Improved Self-Image, Attitude, and Worldview

Much of our stress comes from how we see ourselves and how we see the world.

All of us are afraid of being disadvantaged from someone else’s judgement of ourselves. We often pre-judge ourselves in order to take action to forestall these critical views.

When we genuinely laugh at ourselves we reduce the need for unattainable perfection. We can accept ourselves as we are and relax. Everyone worries about that pimple on their nose. Everyone worries about accidentally farting in public. It’s called being human.

If you focus more on being a kind and respectful person, than on whether you fit in, you will like yourself more, you will like others more, and others will like you more. Laughter can lead to compassion.

Social and Political Commentary

Comedy has on more than one occasion brought about positive social and political change.

Around 1870 cartoonist Thomas Nast was publishing humorous images concerning the corruption of the New York City government by Boss Tweed. Even the illiterate could understand Nast’s images as they appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The public rose up against Boss Tweed and his ring. By 1873 he was arrested for fraud.

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain also influenced social attitudes and political policy with their humorous books, bringing a greater concern for the plight of the poor. More recently George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” brought about greater freedom of speech when the case against censoring that standup routine was taken to the US Supreme Court. Michael Moore is also doing his bit with humorous documentaries.

We do need the pundits and their political essays analysing current affairs. However, they do not speak as broadly or as powerfully as a well executed comic routine. The jester can speak truth to the king. The jester can speak truth to the masses. Long live the jester.

Problem-Solving Skills and Creativity

Humour is about playing with boundaries and seeing outside of boundaries.

When people first saw the production of “Springtime for Hitler” within Mel Brooks’s The Producers, they were mortified. It was outside the boundaries of good taste. But Brooks realised that by taking what Hitler stood for that seriously, we gave him too much power. If on the otherhand we saw what Hitler stood for as foolish and laughable, he loses the power of fear and any other attractive qualities. Who would ever want to be a Nazi when they are recognised as being insanely stupid? Before long “Springtime for Hitler” was seen as the comic highlight of the film.

Humour allows us to come up with whacky ideas that sometimes work. Arthur C. Clarke once famously responded to the question, When will the Space Elevator become a reality?, with “Probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing.”

Humour is also a great mnemonic device. Remembering strings of information is so much easier when you add a little absurd humour that creates a vivid and memorable image.

For remembering Roman numerals:

I Value Xylophones Like Cows Dig Milk
I V X L C D M
1 5 10 50 100 500 1000

For remembering the prefixes of metric measurements:

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk
Kilo – Hecta – Deca – Deci – Centi – Milli

For remembering the planets:

My Very Earnest Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

or with some updating:

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nuts
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Bonding

Forming healthy relationships with others is probably one of the most important things we can do. We network to form business relations, we have parties to cement relationships with friends, we spend quality time with our family. In the end we will be most remembered for how we touched other people’s lives. Laughter is a superb way to bond.

When we remind ourselves of the various events in our lives, what we remember most are the funny incidents. These are illustrative of how comfortable we are with one another, how we support one another, and how we care about one another. If everyone survived pysically and emotionally when a family member fell into a mud puddle during a wedding, and can laugh about it, we recognise a level of acceptance is happening here.

Humour, play, and laughter are exceptionally important parts of a balanced human life. They can be expressive of joy and love. They can help us to find peace. They can keep us healthy. If you are a comedian or a writer of comedy, take pride in your work. You have something wonderful to offer the world. Something that is needed.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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