Within scientific circles, humor is often treated as a “non-serious” topic. According to the article “The Importance of Humor Research” by Peter McGraw in Psychology Today, many scientists fear that their work would be disrespected if they dared to research the what, why, and how of humor. Yet, humor deserves much more reverence than professionals — other than professional comics — are willing to bestow upon it.
Sure, we all appreciate a good joke. We all feel better after a big belly laugh. For the most part, we’d rather invite opportunities that make us chuckle instead of frown. Mirth is a wonderful emotion! All too often, though, we focus on decreasing our less-than-fun emotional states such as depression, anxiety, and stress. What if, instead, we focused on increasing our humor quota?
To understand the innate need for humor, it’s important to note that laughter is one of the first things a newborn does. And even more amazing, studies show that animals enjoy a sense of humor as well. To quote a section from an article in Slate Magazine by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner: “Nonhuman primates don’t just laugh—there’s evidence they can crack their own jokes.” A wonderful example of this is when the famous gorilla Koko tied her trainer’s shoelaces together and signed “chase.”
So why do we Earthlings enjoy the gift of humor? A short piece in BBC Focus Magazine by Christian Jarrett answers the question: “Why did humans evolve a sense of humor?” Jarrett writes that a recent theory says a sense of humor evolved because it helps us fact check our assumptions about other people’s intentions and perspectives. Our funny bone gets tickled, then, when we debunk one of our presumptions and see things in a new light. Once humor evolved, it became a social signal, making us assume that funny people are intelligent and friendly. I know I appreciate when people around me can make me laugh—even at the darkest of times.
Humor can help people’s—and I believe animal’s as well—physical and psychological well-being. Laughter can benefit our circulation, lungs, and muscles (it’s way more fun, by the way, to exercise our stomach muscles via a hearty laugh rather than with a bout of monotonous crunches). Psychologically, humor can also help people deal with emotional pain and embarrassment. If I tripped walking down the red carpet (not that I’d ever have the opportunity, but you get the picture), I’d feel much better about it if I could crack a brilliant joke about it and turned everyone’s gasps into laughter. I know, too, that when my husband recently addressed our separate aging issues by joking: “Not to worry; we’ll just have to grow old together and take turns pushing each other around in our wheelchairs,” I not only let out a chuckle, but also drew in a breath of appreciation. His quiet, little joke lightened up our worried minds as well as emphasizing our ongoing support for each other—one quick quip that improved our psychological well-being in a big way.
Humor benefits us in many other ways, as well. If you watch the best of comedians, you’ll notice that their humor makes us feel as if someone understands our daily frustrations, and when fellow audience members laugh, this makes us feel less alone and more connected to others. In a way, then, comedians are spokespeople for the universality of the human condition, their humor providing a salve to our collective pain and a brand-new prospective to lighten up our moods.
That old cliché about the importance of learning to laugh at the face of danger proves to be even more poignant when we recognize the healing power of humor. So, make time to joke around with a friend about your woes when you’re feeling blue. Read the comics when the news becomes too depressing. Tune into your favorite stand-up comic the next time anxiety hits. Tap into the depth of dark humor when you have to face what you’d rather not. And… don’t forget to help others, too, with your own humor when they could use a fresh take on their problems or simply need to connect with someone about the absurdity of life in general.