What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Sick humour? Children saying funny things? Your own attempts to master a dance move? Some of the most memorable chuckles for me have been caused by typos in emails (either my own or other people’s) that resulted in somewhat inappropriate – but thankfully very obviously wrong – meanings.
This week, Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt, Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon, spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘A Merry Heart Doeth Good Like a Medicine: Humour, religion and wellbeing’.
A number of clinical studies have been carried out on humour and physical wellbeing, and like research on religion and health, the results of these studies vary widely. For religion, the overall trend is towards better health among people who have religious beliefs and practices, but the same is not true for humour. So while people who are sick tend to feel better when they laugh, their symptoms may not be affected.
There are of course many different types of humour, and they all have different effects. The appropriate sort of humour can be a coping mechanism to help in difficult situations. Bad jokes can break friendships, but laughing to build bonds among colleagues or friends is healthy – building self esteem and protecting against depression. Humour that keeps your friends laughing and you feeling good about yourself can be very healthy, but it can also be a way of ignoring problems. Some people manage to use self-deprecating humour in a positive way, but others are self-defeating.
In the past, humour was seen as a vice, possibly because it can often be subversive, but now it is generally seen as a character strength. Humour helps us to handle incongruous situations and make sense of things, recognise our own stupidity without condemning ourselves, or let off steam. Humour can, on the other hand, be used to devalue things or people, or exert superiority. Wit is generally thought to be the most clever sort of humour, but can also be the most damaging. For example, in Jane Austen’s novel Emma the heroine has to learn to control her wit and not hurt people with it.
Surprisingly (to me), laughter is more often mentioned negatively than positively in the Bible. Cynical humour is connected to ignoring, disbelieving or disobeying God. But does the fact that Jesus and others are not mentioned laughing mean they didn’t enjoy a joke? The Bible only records those events that were most important for the reader to learn from (so it doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all, and there are very few mentions of breakfast, toilets and shoes). My experiences of the Middle East have been full of smiles and laughter, and I expect the disciples’ gatherings were the same.
Humour involves a lack of inhibition, which can be a very good thing if our inhibitions are stopping us receiving from God. Prophets often have a subversive message, which can be particularly important at the renewal phase of religions. If humour helps us to disengage from unhelpful dogma and be open to a new realisation of what is most true and important, we should welcome that. Finally, absurdity can get a point home – and Jesus did use this sort of illustration in his teaching (e.g. The camel and the needle).
So we laugh because we realise things are true. We laugh in surprise when people challenge received wisdom. We laugh because the supposedly serious is made absurd. We laugh because if we didn’t we’d cry – when we are coping with adversity. And most important of all we laugh in delight, enjoying the present moment. I didn’t expect to laugh so much in a seminar, but it seems that humour is an important part of both faith and academia.