When everything is heavy, a touch of humour can help

Beyond making tough moments a little easier, cultivating levity is good for your health

By Carolyn Todd

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Published: Thu 24 Nov 2022, 11:43 PM

Wendi Aarons was writing at her local library when the sound of an angry voice made everyone look up. A patron, outraged over a book policy, vowed to take her child to another library and stormed off after berating the staff. The entire room was “so upset,” recalled Aarons, a humourist in Austin, Texas. “It was just this awful, uncomfortable silence.”

But Aarons, a pro at balancing humour and discomfort, saw an opening: She stood up and said, “‘Hey, does anybody have the number for this other library? Because I want to call and give them a heads-up.’”

Laughter erupted; the mood lifted. Things returned to normal. This is the subtle power of “lightening up.”

“Levity is a mindset,” said Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who advises executives on leading with humour and humanity. “It’s looking for reasons to be delighted rather than disappointed in the world around you.”

Bagdonas joins a chorus of experts who say cultivating levity is essential to well-being. Trying to lighten up might seem challenging given the state of the world; a more sombre practice — such as mindfulness, which certainly comes with perks — can feel more appropriate for “these unprecedented times.” But taking things less seriously allows us to “travel more lightly,” said Willibald Ruch, a professor and positive psychology researcher at the University of Zurich, and “saves the organism and the soul from too much of a bumpy road.”

Humour and levity have physiological benefits

When you’re stressed, your nervous system initiates the “fight or flight” response, causing a cascade of physiological effects: Your body releases stress hormones that cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise. Your breathing becomes short and shallow, and your muscles tense. Sometimes this is helpful, such as when you’re in immediate danger. But often — such as when you’re running late and stuck in traffic — the stress response adds unnecessary discomfort to an already unpleasant situation. Over time, chronic stress can negatively affect health.

“Levity is our primary vehicle for restoring a relaxed state,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley. It helps create a buffer and escape from the mental and physical stress that underpins so much of our suffering, she said.

Humour and levity are related, but the terms aren’t interchangeable. There are more studies on humour — and other phenomena such as laughter, playfulness, amusement and cheerfulness, Ruch said. But much of the related research falls under the umbrella of levity, he explained. The core element that underlies these overlapping experiences is a sense of lightness, as well as a posture of not taking everything so seriously.

Although declaring “laughter is the best medicine” might be a bridge too far, a good chuckle has potent effects. There are studies linking laughter to positive changes in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.

And reams of other evidence support the idea that living with levity can help people feel better. There are small studies that connect laughter, humour and feeling amused to increases in optimism, feeling in control and life satisfaction, as well as decreases in depression, stress and anxiety. Research also suggests that humour helps us build stronger bonds with one another, with links to greater satisfaction in both romantic relationships and the workplace.

So, how do you cultivate more levity?

The idea of “working on levity” may feel a little forced. But, like building any other habit, practice helps — and there’s evidence that purposely creating amusing experiences has the same benefits as spontaneous amusement. This applies even to the Eeyores among us: “The capacity to experience amusement and levity is one of the ways that people can change,” said Caleb Warren, co-director at University of Colorado Humour Research Lab and marketing professor at the University of Arizona.

To wit: Ruch and his colleagues had participants take an eight-week humour training course in which they completed the following tasks in the name of science: They watched more funny TV shows, laughed louder or longer than they normally would, identified puns in media and conversations, and made self-deprecating jokes. Humour trainees reported increases in cheerfulness and decreased seriousness as a result.

So, how do you try this at home, without the help of an official humour training? Here are some ways to start.

>> Look for things that are just the tiniest bit amusing

Searching for things that are “funny” can turn levity into a chore. Instead, try noticing “what’s true, and a little bit delightful,” Bagdonas said. When your angry kid stomps into the room, does she kind of resemble a tiny, drunk dictator? When you pass a dog park, can you appreciate how the entire affair seems like a canine singles bar?

Sensitising yourself to these moments primes you to notice and savour them, said Heather Walker, an organisational psychologist who describes herself as a “recovering serious person” and runs a workplace consultancy called Lead with Levity (“lead” is not in reference to the heavy metallic element, but a reader spotting puns in the name of levity could be forgiven for reading it that way).

>> Create a levity diary

Find time to record your amusing experiences. Maybe on your morning run, a man jogs past you wearing in a Santa suit. During your commute, perhaps the train conductor makes a completely unintelligible announcement, and you make eye contact with another commuter and laugh. These small moments are prime candidates for your diary.

Humour-based intervention studies have found that simply writing down three funny things from your day (or counting them throughout and reviewing the total at night) for one week can reduce symptoms of depression and enhance well-being for up to six months.

Read your diary periodically to replay the good feelings and maybe even make yourself giggle. “When you’re rereading that, you are reliving that experience. Your body is going to benefit,” Walker said.

>> When something goes “wrong”, try to take it lightly

The “benign violation” theory of humour says that harmless improprieties have lots of potential to be funny if you look at them the right way, Warren said. So, any time you commit or witness an innocuous faux pas — say, forgetting to mute during a Zoom meeting and treating everyone to a conversation between you and your cat — that’s a prime opportunity to experience amusement.

Small mishaps are easy to reframe in the moment, but save more challenging material for later. Reframing bigger violations is easier in retrospect because time provides the psychological distance you need to reduce the perception of a threat, Warren said. A fight with your partner about who was supposed to unload the dishwasher, for instance, might feel more amusing a day or two after the initial set-to.

>> Spend time with people who make you chuckle

If the thought of keeping a levity journal or laughing at your own misfortunes makes you want to cry, let levity bubble up in the company of loved ones.

Humour and lightness come very naturally when we’re with the people who put us in a joyful state, Bagdonas said. It’s “a fundamental melody of human conversation.”

>> Get to know your own sense of humour

If you’re sure you don’t have a single funny bone in your body, you might not know your sense of humour. Everybody has one, said Jennifer Aaker, a behavioural scientist and General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. And putting a finer point on yours allows you to wield it.

She and Bagdonas have identified four humour styles: Those who are bold and irreverent; those who are more earnest and often self-deprecating; those who use sarcasm — masters of the unexpected dig; and those who are expressive and charismatic entertainers.

Understanding your style allows you to notice and appreciate it, and primes you to be more aware of other people’s attempts at humour, inclining you to be more generous with your laughter, Aaker said.

>> Make humour a main ingredient in your media diet

Along with fostering a levity mindset, enjoy the low-hanging fruit of good comedy. There are an infinite number of TikTok posters, TV shows, writers and podcasts out there. Why not exchange some of the grisly crime dramas with content that leaves you feeling amused?

Aarons recommended following comedians, humour writers, and personalities on social media, as well as mining Netflix for series that tickle your particular tastes. “I would strongly suggest setting aside time to prioritise it,” Aarons said. “Even on really dark days, I try to find something that makes me laugh or smile — even if it’s a silly cat meme.”

Carolyn Todd is a freelance health journalist who covers wellness, mental well-being and diabetes.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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