Back in 1964, Norman Cousins, who had a stressful job as editor of a magazine, was given a few months to live. He had Ankylosing Spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissues. He was told by his doctor that he had a 1 in 500 chance of staying alive and was advised to “get his affairs in order.”
Cousins didn’t listen to his doctor. Instead, he took a sabbatical from his job and checked into a hotel, where he watched funny movies to the point where his stomach was hurting. About six months later, he went back to have a check-up and the doctors pronounced that he had been miraculously cured. Since then much research has shown that laughter actually strengthens the immune system and helps promote cure in many ways.
But all laughter is not the same; we laugh for different reasons. Freud in his book, Jokes and the Unconscious, delineated three types of humor: joke, comic and memetic. Jokes were about letting out thoughts that were forbidden by society. Dirty jokes fall in that category. Comic humor makes us laugh at ourselves through identification with another’s plight. Charlie Chaplin’s humor comes to mind. Memetic or tendentious humor contains hostility, as when we laugh at people we consider beneath us, i.e., Saturday Night Live parodies of out-of-favor celebrities.
However, is all laughter equally healing? Upon reflecting on Freud’s categories, I have decided to define these categories more clearly and add some additional categories that he left out. Each category of laughter has its own motivation and its own meaning.
Malicious Humor. This is the category Freud called memetic or tendentious; it’s the most destructive form of humor. We laugh at someone we consider beneath us. Often times such laughter expresses our prejudice against a certain group, as when we tell jokes about Polish people or African-Americans or those whose religious or political views are different than ours. “How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “It takes five; one to stand in the chair and hold the bulb, and four to lift the chair and turn it around and around.” People also laugh at outcasts or scapegoats, making them the target of their pent-up hatred; they are also engaging in malicious humor. This kind of humor, sometimes called parody, is definitely not healing. It brings about an immediate release of anger and a feeling of superiority. But it does not resolve the anger, and since it bring immediate gratification (reinforcement) it perpetuates prejudiced thinking and societal fragmentation and discrimination.
The Giggles. This kind of humor is associated with children and teenagers, but it can happen to adults too. This kind of humor comes about when people find something so funny (often something trifling) that they begin to laugh in an out-of-control way and can’t stop. This is a case of laughter being contagious, of one person’s laughter fueling another’s, back and forth. It can be a bonding experience, and it is also a release of tension. On its deepest level, the giggles may simply be a reaction to a hard day or a difficult event, and the laughter is like a volcano of tension erupting. Since it brings about a release of tension, it has a positive effect, but its mindlessness (unconsciousness) makes the release short-lived. It doesn’t tap into the real reason for the laughter nor the tension beneath it so there is no chance to resolve it.
Jokes. As Freud noted, jokes are about breaking the rules, and there is always some anger beneath them. Dirty jokes break the rules of societal censorship, whatever it may be in a particular society. Breaking the rules releases provides us with a “guilty pleasure.” Dark humor or cruelty jokes also provide the same satisfaction. “Mrs. Wilson, can Johnny come out and play?” “You know he doesn’t have any arms and legs.” “We know, but we want to use him for third base.” When we tell a joke like this there is an unconscious satisfaction not only in breaking the rules of decency by joking about someone less fortunate than you through no fault of their own, but also by challenging authority in an indirect way.
Self-Deprecating Humor. There are certain people who are always making themselves the butt of their own humor. Sometimes they are “bumbling idiots” who are always doing or saying stupid or inane things and thereby evoking laughter from others as well as from themselves. They thereby provide others with a release and a sense of superiority while getting much needed attention for themselves. Often such people were conditioned by their families to get attention in this way. The youngest sibling may find himself or herself falling into this habit. They do or say something stupid and the whole family laughs at them, and so such behavior becomes reinforced. Sometimes they make a living from their self-depreciating humor and become clowns or stand-up comics. However, it doesn’t really make them happy, and instead it perpetuates depression. They are simply playing a role they were conditioned to play from childhood on, while suppressing their real need for respect and dignity.
Satire. This is a higher form of humor, since its goal is to “hold the mirror to nature,” as Shakespeare put it and exaggerate some aspect of human folly, pridefulness, egotism, self-deceit or self-indulgence. Children’s stories often use satire, as when the Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” is shown to be ego-centric and entitled to a ridiculous degree, constantly shouting, “Off with their heads!” when anybody says or does anything to offend her; thus it is a satire of tyrannical leaders or people. Such humor indeed has a healing quality because it allows people to bond together against abusive people and can have a transforming effect on society. Satire is an indirect way of pointing out the truth and keeping things in perspective. Like other forms of humor, it is also a release of unconscious anger.
Ingratiating Laughter. This is about pleasing someone to get into their good graces. You laugh at your boss’s jokes, even though they are not very funny. If you have a crush on a man or woman, you will likewise laugh at their jokes as a way of getting them to like you and achieving your goal of having them notice you. At other times we are laughing out of politeness. Often we don’t even know we are doing it. Since it involves dishonesty to ourselves as well as to the other person, it is more of a kind of manipulation than a genuine release of any kind.
Healing Humor. Freud called this comic humor. In this case we are not laughing at somebody, but with them. The humor of silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, as I mentioned before, is an example of this. We laugh at his character, the tramp, because we love him and identify in him. There is a truth to his plight that reminds of truths in our own situations. All of us have been underdogs at some point in our lives, and by laughing at the portrayal of an underdog getting pie in his face, we are also laughing at ourselves and releasing frustration and stress. Often this can be a transformative experience, as in the case of Norman Cousins, mentioned earlier. We come to realize that we have been living a driven, pretentious or otherwise unrealistic life and reach a new awareness through our laughter. Hence comic humor, laughing with and not at somebody, is the most healing of all.