A regular requirement in lonely hearts columns is a GSOH, a good sense of humour. But why is humour so important to us, why does it come more readily to some people than others, and could we have more of it? Inspired by Stephanie Davies' excellent book, 'Laughology', this weeks tip explores.
Last week a headline in the newspaper caught my eye. It said, Man Assaults Wife for Singing 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead'. It seems that when his mother died, instead of being sympathetic the man's wife launched enthusiastically into song. He, distraught by her extraordinary callousness, hit her and locked her up in the garden shed.
I laughed and laughed. As I write this now, aware that not everyone will find it funny, especially if you have recently lost your mother, I find myself hovering between hilarity and wondering if I, too, am extraordinarily callous.
That is the strange thing about humour, it's so often found in the saddest situations, where a human being is as likely to cry as laugh.
Something I have noticed over the years is that people who have had difficult childhoods, or some other kind of suffering, often have a well-developed sense of humour. Spike Milligan, Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry, Billy Connelly all come to mind. And what about the Jews, and the Irish? I am well aware, you epidemiologists out there, that I have no data on most people's childhoods, and that there may be loads of people, and races, with fabulous senses of humour who had perfect childhoods, but I shall just pose it as a theory for the moment.
So what might be the mechanism for this?
My parents rowed all the time. My childhood memories are criss-crossed with my mother's high pitched fury and my father's terrifying boom. One time they were having a blazing row in the kitchen. My mother was engaged in tidying up the freezer that day - in those days it was chest freezers, not the upright ones we have now. My mother was tiny, and as she delved further down the freezer she really struggled to keep her feet on the ground. I can't remember what the row was about but it was probably something to do with what she'd found, or not found, in the freezer. She'd shouted for my father who had appeared at the door with a glass of whiskey in his hand. She accused, he defended, the usual thing. The row escalated until my mother, at this point nearly disappearing head first into the freezer, came up with a frozen chicken in her hand and, before we knew it, it was flying through the air. With formidable accuracy it hit the bowl of my father's glass, taking it clean off, spraying the wall with whiskey, leaving my somewhat startled father with just the stem in his hand.
Now I'll be honest with you, having warring parents is hell, but if you couldn't laugh at something like that, honestly, you were dead.
I have a friend who was the seventh of nine children. She grew up in poverty. Her parents were both alcoholics and her father regularly hit her mother and the children. The children were taken into care several times. She laughs all the time. I have another friend, whose mother had bipolar disorder and who was sent to a Catholic boarding school at the age of six and was systematically abused there. He laughs a lot too.
So maybe we learn to laugh as children, and the more we need to distance ourselves from events in our families the more we laugh? Freud said,
'Humour is a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of distressing events that interfere with it.'
Gallows humour he described as 'the clever, exalted diversions of the condemned victim just before the hanging'.
Fortunately you don't have to have had a difficult childhood, or be condemned to die, in order to laugh. Life is sufficiently peppered with adverse events, both big and small, that benefit from the distance provided by humour. Michael McIntyre's observational humour has such wide appeal because he talks about the small frustrations and embarrassments that we all experience, each and every day.
'Humour and high seriousness... Perfect bedfellows, I think. Though I usually phrase it in terms of comedy and darkness. Comedy without darkness rapidly becomes trivial. And darkness without comedy rapidly becomes unbearable.'
Mark Haddon, Author of A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime.
Like singing, we often assume that humour is something we're born with (or not), but Stephanie Davies says no, that we learn humour when we're young. Counter to this, a long term study of twins separated at birth, done over many years at St Thomas's medical school, has found uncannily similar senses of humour, even though the twins' upbringing has been completely different.
Like most of our characteristics, the contribution of nature and nurture is probably 50:50 and this leaves enormous scope for developing our senses of humour. And it is this scope that Stephanie Davies would like us to take full advantage of in order to improve our lives.
'Humour, laughter and comedy can be a way to cope with challenges: they are survival tools that we can all tap into.'
Stephanie Davies, author of Laughology:
improve your life with the science of laughter.
Whatever your sense of humour, one thing is shared by all, laughing is tremendous fun. You relax, your heart opens, you connect with the people you are laughing with. I would go as far as to say that when you have a really good laugh with someone, there is a moment when you fall in love with that person. So perhaps that's why it is so essential to relationships, it is a close relative of love.
We all have a stock of funny stories and memories and Stephanie Davies says these are an excellent source of 'on tap' well-being. One of my all time favourites was from a friend. She grew up in a variety of far flung places, as her father was with the RAF, and on this occasion she and her family had flown to England in order to go to a very smart department store in Harrogate to buy her uniform for boarding school. The school department was full of mothers with loud voices and tweed coats, and the staff hovered around them in obeisance. My friend tried on blazers and skirts, white blouses and cardigans, shoes and socks, and finally they were ready to pay. The shop assistant totted everything up on the cash register and handed her father the bill. To my friend's total mortification, he started to haggle over the price.
Think of three things that reliably make you laugh, or at least smile. Remember each one in full. Enjoy.
Think of something unpleasant or embarrassing that happened to someone you know, that made you laugh at the time.
Think of something unpleasant or embarrassing that happened to you, that you can laugh about now.
Notice how much better you feel after a good laugh...
Have a funny week! love
'There's no life without humour. It can make the wonderful moments of life truly glorious, and it can make tragic moments bearable.'
Rufus Wainwright, musician