“Laughter is the best medicine.”  Do you know who said it? Me neither. There have been so many who have said some version of that statement  that I can’t even find a citation for where it started.  And yet, in the time of COVID and social justice warriors, we have lost our sense of humor. It’s time to bring laughter and light back into our lives.

Our loss of mirth was the drum beat of Bill Maher’s recent monologue about the “Woke Olympics”.  Among other examples, he talked about a headline from an AP story that was published across the Internet stating that “Olympic Surfing Exposes Whitewashed Native Hawaiian Roots.” Maher challenged the author’s accusation that white outsiders took over native Hawaiian’s spiritual art form…”perhaps surfing is simply people having fun in the ocean.” 

Fun… humor  lightness.  We seem to have forgotten how to have fun as social justice warriors have decided that what used to be thought of as playful banter are actually statements of oppression.  Are they right?  Or are they just taking life wayyyy too seriously and applying meaning that simply isn’t there?

Either way, it’s tragic since humor and laughter actually connects humanity and has been shown to increase group cohesion.  In fact, according to a study from 2011 at University of Oxford, people were 30 times more likely to laugh when in group settings than when alone. In his new book, The Hero Code, Admiral William McRaven outlines ten characteristics of heroism.  Among them is humor, which he states was vital for team building and connection at every step of his military career – even and especially during life and death moments.

Not only that, other studies have shown how laughter releases endorphins that simply makes us feel good – so good in fact that laughter and its related endorphin release have been shown to reduce the perception of pain. Sounds like perfect medicine.

Then why are we running around being so serious and grumpy all the time?

I looked to see how researchers have defined what makes something funny, and fascinatingly they were actually very serious for such a fun subject, taking a dark view of humor with three primary theories.  Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, said that the roots of humor were in what is called “Superiority Theory” – that people make themselves feel better by putting someone else down.  Freud rooted humor in what he called “Relief Theory” where humor releases nervous tension that was internally upsetting.  Of course Freud being Freud, he rooted most of these tensions in sexual or hostile energy which our libido feels and our ego and/or super ego suppresses. Darn that ego!  It ruins all the fun! And the third theory of humor – which is not as dark as the others –  has to do with “incongruity” – things are funny because they are not what we expected them to be.

When analyzed clinically like this, yes, humor sounds kind of mean. Let me make a joke about your poor cooking or the fact that you can never remember someone’s name or that time you struck out in the big game and lost the championships for the team so I won’t feel bad about my own foibles (Superiority Theory)… or I can make jokes about your weird personal habits since I secretly know that I do my own weird things behind closed doors (Relief Theory).

These jokes could be thought of as mean and exclusionary and insulting or they could actually be connecting us all through our shared insecurities.  Comics point out and talk about the things that we all secretly know and we are embarrassed about – bathroom humor, smells, sex, our mental shortcomings, our personality traits. Admit it or not, we all have behavioral quirks and mental shortcomings of one sort or another. Stop pretending you don’t. If you go outside with a huge spot on your shirt, everyone sees it so someone says “what did you do?  Spill your soup at lunch?”  They are merely pointing out the obvious. Making a public statement merely lets us know that we are normal in our own dorky ways.

But soup spills are different than ethnic jokes or ones about personal physiques.  Except for one thing – we all have unique personal physiques and ethnicities about which jokes can be made. Chiding can occur as much for being tall as being short.. for being fat as being thin.  Every nationality has their cultural traits that bind them together, so why be insulted if other people notice them? Many of my Jewish friends complained about their curly hair.. Asians have straight hair and today, Wrestler, Tamara Mensah-Stock became the first U.S. black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. And when she was asked about the importance of her win, she talked about the “puff balls” of her hair: “These young women are going to see themselves in a number of ways and they’re gonna look up there and go, I can do that ’cause I can see myself,” Mensah-Stock said. “Look at this natural hair! Come on. I mean sure, I brought my puff balls out so they can know you can do it, too.” 

Horrors. She joked about the obvious.

There was a Supreme Court Case in 1964, Jacobellis vs. Ohio, in which the state of Ohio was trying to ban a movie as being “obscene.”  Was it “obscene” or was the state suppressing Jacobellis’ first amendment rights by saying he couldn’t show the movie? In his decision, Justice Stewart famously stated that he couldn’t define obscenity but he knew it when he saw it.  I think the same is true for humor – we all know it when we see it.

Then why are we so serious?  Are we really worried about others and their hurt feelings? Or is it really about our own deep insecurities?  More globally, has the era of participation trophies and demonizing those who are successful for fear of harming the self-esteem of those who are less successful simply gone out of control? What started as an earnest effort to help everyone believe they belonged has created a monster that has made no one belong.

Humor binds us together – the hypersensitivity in the name of protecting people’s feelings is driving us apart. The truth is that as humans and animals we will continue to have thoughts and insecurities. All of the political correctness in the world will not change it. We need to stop pretending these things don’t exist. 

“Cancer is probably the unfunniest thing in the world, but I’m a comedian, and even cancer couldn’t stop me from seeing the humor in what I went through.” — Gilda Radner

If Gilda could find humor in her own fatal fight against cancer, can’t we learn to laugh again?

“Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.” — John Cleese