Why Comedy Matters in Times of Crisis: Humor Serves Vital Function During Events-Art-and-Culture News, Firstpost
Our situation may not always be a laughing matter. But laughing on its own counts, and when used appropriately, it can be one of our most effective coping mechanisms during a crisis.
Image via Shutterstock / fizkes
By Lucy Rayfield
Most of us have had a need to laugh in the past 12 months. Horror searches on Netflix plunged to the top of the first lockdown, while the stand-up comedy saw a huge jump in viewers.
In the social media world, accounts mocking responses to the virus have also gained huge following, with accounts like Quentin Quarantino and the Reddit thread CoronavirusMemes growing in popularity over the past year.
We spent a lot of time joking about Zoom meetings, hand washing songs, and home hairstyles. But what makes us switch so quickly between panicking over the death toll and laughing at a video sent by a friend?
As a researcher who has spent much of my career studying laughter and comedy, I often come across surprising functions of humor. I studied Italian comedy and its reception in 16th century France, the political consequences of laughter in the wars of religion, and the historical antecedents of major theories of humor today.
Much of my research has revealed some fascinating things about how humor attracts us in difficult times. But the pandemic has really amplified the roles comedy can play and brought out our addiction to humor.
Humor in ancient Rome
Our need to laugh in the face of disaster is by no means new. In ancient Rome, gladiators left humorous graffiti on barracks walls before they died. The ancient Greeks were also looking for new ways to laugh at deadly diseases. And during the Black Death pandemic in 1348, the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, a collection of often funny tales told by storytellers isolating themselves from the plague.
The need to avoid offending with humor is just as old. In 335 BCE, Aristotle advised against laughing at anything painful or destructive. The Roman educator Quintilian also sketched in 95 AD the very fine line between ridere (laughs) and deridere (derision). It is still generally accepted that humor shouldn’t hurt, and this is especially true when the object of laughter is already vulnerable.
When the line between laughter and derision is respected, comedy can play a key role in helping us recover from disaster, offering benefits that explain our tendency to seek humor in serious situations, especially in terms of strengthening our sense of physical and mental well-being.
How humor helps during seizures
Laughter is a great workout (laughing 100 times burns as many calories as 15 minutes on an exercise bike), helping to relax our muscles and promote circulation. Combinations of exercise and laughter – such as the increasingly popular “laughter yoga” – can also offer significant benefits to patients with depression.
Laughter also lowers stress hormones and increases endorphins. In difficult times, when we have thousands of thoughts a day, a fit of laughter gives our brain the respite we desperately need.
Likewise, humor is sought in a crisis because it is difficult to feel afraid and amused at the same time, and more often than not, the combination of these emotions results in a feeling of thrill, not dread.
Sigmund Freud explored this in 1905 when revising the so-called “relief theory,” suggesting that laughter is good because it purges our system of repressed energy. Even in the 1400s, clergymen argued that cheerfulness was vital for keeping morale up, explaining that people are like old barrels that explode if they aren’t spilled every now and then.
While loneliness levels hit an all-time high during the winter lockdown (in November, one in four UK adults said they felt lonely), laughter was also crucial in bringing people together. Not only is this usually a community activity – some scientists believe our human ancestors laughed in groups before they could speak – it’s even more contagious than yawning.
Since we are much more likely to laugh at topics that we find personally relatable, humor has helped people identify with each other during lockdowns. This in turn creates a sense of oneness and togetherness, easing our sense of disconnection. Literature researcher and author Gina Barreca argues that “laughing together is as close as it gets without touching”.
Laughter can also be a way to allay our worries. Joking around a fear, especially during a pandemic, can make it more manageable, a phenomenon known to comedians as “finding the funny.” This relates to the ‘superiority theory’, the idea that we laugh because we feel superior to something or someone else (for example, it’s funny when someone slips on a banana because we didn’t do it ourselves).
We laugh because we are superior, not threatened and in control. In this way, joking about a virus strengthens our sense of power over it and relieves anxiety. Jokes can also be helpful because they allow us to talk about our problems and express fears that we would otherwise have trouble expressing.
While many of us felt guilty for looking for humor in the pandemic, let’s not add this to our list of worries. Of course, our situation may not always be a laughing matter. But laughing in itself matters, and when used appropriately it can be one of our most effective coping mechanisms during a crisis, allowing us to find a healthier balance with others, with ourselves and even with events beyond our control.
Lucy Rayfield is Senior Lecturer in French, University of Bristol
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.