February 28, 2014 1:34 pm

Do we need a sense of humour?

‘It’s good to face things with a smile but be wary about using humour to keep life at bay’

The Shrink

An illustration depicting a sense of humour©Laura Carlin

The “essential key to much, if not most, of human happiness and effective sociability is humour”, muses a reader. A GSOH – good sense of humour – certainly seems to be a must for those looking for love. And laughter is said to have great health benefits such as reducing stress and boosting the immune system, at least in the short term.

A sense of humour is an important part of coping with setbacks and adversity. If we’re blessed with a humorous outlook we’re better able to see the ridiculous side of whatever it is we are upset about, making it easier to avoid being swamped by distress.

An endorsement for this approach comes from Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and concentration camp survivor, who described humour as “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation”. He thought it was “a trick learned while mastering the art of living”, and that “it is possible to practise the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent”.

You would have thought a sense of humour would be universally considered a blessing. But in the field of psychotherapy there is a deep-seated suspicion of it. The doubts are based mainly on the idea that humour can be a defence mechanism that allows us to avoid really experiencing our emotions. According to this view, humour is not just about healthy detachment: turning everything into a joke and making light of everything can be a way of distancing ourselves from problematic feelings.

A lot hangs on how well our particular brand of humour serves us in dealing with life. Some people undoubtedly take humour to extremes, and this approach won’t do us any favours in the long term. It’s good to face things with a smile but be wary about using humour to keep life at bay.

. . .

The Sage

Wittgenstein once said that it would be possible to write a philosophy book consisting entirely of jokes. You might think this was itself a joke, given that virtually every work of philosophy ever written is entirely devoid of gags. However, the suggestion is not as absurd as it sounds. Like comic wordplay, a lot of philosophy explores the ambiguity of language. The comedy of a lunatic searching under the sofa because he’s lost his mind, for instance, illustrates the philosophical mistake of assuming a mind is a kind of object, its noun form leading us astray.

I think there’s another way in which philosophy could use some humour. When Jean-Paul Sartre summed up the essential features of existentialism in the triad of anguish, abandonment and despair in a famous 1945 lecture, he hardly had them rolling in the aisles. However, there is a brand of Anglo-Saxon existentialism which takes the same basic insight – that life has no ultimate purpose and death is the end – but which offers a rather different response. I am, of course, talking about the great 20th-century sage Monty Python, whose central credo is expressed in the closing song of The Life of Brian: “Always look on the bright side of death/just before you draw your terminal breath.”

Life is absurd, and we can’t change that. But we can decide how to respond to that absurdity: with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, with steely defiance, with laughter, or some combination of all three. Treating it entirely as a joke is inhumane. The suffering of the people of Syria, for instance, is tragic, not comic. But being unrelentingly serious is also wrong, as it represents a failure to accept the cosmic insignificance of human endeavour. The right balance is to be able to step back and laugh at our vanity but then to step back in and get on with life anyway. It’s a kind of tragi-comic double vision that is also practised by the very best comedians: by capturing what is funny in what appears serious, they show why being funny is a serious business.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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