While Christians aren’t exactly known for our humour, the one joke most Christians make is to say that God has a good sense of humour. It’s a sentiment that gets rolled out when we’re confronted with a range of unusual or unexpected things, from the sight of a platypus to an experience of order appearing out of apparent chaos. As Voltaire famously quipped, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.” If indeed God has a good sense of humour (and, let’s be honest: the platypus is an amazing joke), it’s not surprising that humour is among the character traits that have been identified as culturally universal and essential for human wellbeing.
As described by the VIA Institute on character, “Humor involves the ability to make other people smile or laugh. It also means having a composed and cheerful view on adversity that allows an individual to see its light side and thereby sustain a good mood.” I say ‘described’ because humour is notoriously difficult to define, and — much like how explaining a joke ruins it — definitions of humour, whether intuitive or scientific all seem to miss something important. The most promising research-based definition I’ve seen is called the “Benign Violation Theory,” which explains that something is funny when it violates our expectations — sensory, historical, or linguistic — in a non-threatening way. This seems as good as any, but again, it seems to suck the humour out of humour.
- Humour grabs a listener’s attention, improving our ability to communicate and persuade;
- Humour improves memory retention and learning;
- Humour allows us to connect better with others;
- Humour reduces social distance and status differentials;
- Humour eases conflict;
- Humour builds trust and encourages collaboration;
- Humour releases serotonin, which has been shown to improve focus and decision-making;
- Humour increases creativity, lowering barriers to accepting new ideas and promoting making connections between ideas;
- Humour improves morale and increases positivity;
- Humour reduces stress and helps to prevent burnout;
- Humour strengthens the immune system and improves medical outcomes.
Despite all these benefits, faith traditions — especially in the West — have tended to look askance at humour. The West has sadly tended towards a distrust of humour and joy, connecting them to a loss of control and to hedonism. And, let’s be honest, the Bible isn’t known for being a funny book. This isn’t to say, though, that the Scriptures don’t use humour. Some examples from the Hebrew Scriptures are the story of Jonah sulking under the withered vine, or Balaam’s donkey suddenly back-talking like a Disney sidekick. Or, my favorite example of humour in the Hebrew Scriptures: the moment when King Achish of Gath exasperatedly asks his servants, “Am I so lacking in mad men that you bring this man to play the mad man in my presence?” That’s funny!
But more to the point, Jesus clearly understood how to use humour to improve communication and persuasion. While familiarity has made many of his stories lose their humorous punch (if we cite the benign violation theory, we could say that that once we get used to an image or figure of speech, it ceases to violate our expectations and therefore ceases to be funny), Jesus loved to use outlandish and hyperbolic images: think of putting a lamp under a basket, fitting a camel through the eye of a needle, a father running through the streets without regard to propriety at the sight of a lost son, or someone walking around with a plank in their eye. These are all funny images! Jesus also lovingly teased his disciples, nicknaming the hard-minded Simon “Rocky” and the brothers John and James “The Sons of Thunder” for wanting him to call down lightning from heaven on their enemies.
But what of pathologies of humour? On the sides of lack and opposite, we have humorlessness and dourness. I think we’ve all experienced just how difficult and draining it is to be around humorless people. Humorlessness is also a common symptom of depression. While a lack of humour may not itself be sinful, it definitely limits the goodness we experience in life and therefore also the good fruit our lives can bear. There’s a reason why joy is among the fruit of the Spirit! And yet, humour can go wrong too. We might call the pathological excess of humour “buffoonery,” an inability to be serious that turns everything into a joke and therefore accomplishes nothing. This can be just as tiresome to be around as dourness! But I think there’s another way misplaced humour can be problematic. This was beautifully articulated by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette. She describes the negative impact comedy has had on her life, how being a comedian had caused her to see her life as a series of setups and punchlines, instead of stories with beginnings, middles, and — crucially — endings. While humour can undoubtedly be healing when used properly, if misused it can also prevent healing and growth, fossilizing moments of trauma instead of helping us process them and move on.
But how might we actively cultivate humour in our lives? Here are some simple suggestions:
- Reminisce about old times with friends or family
- Pay attention to the humour in your everyday life and journal about it
- Watch a sitcom or comedy special or read a funny book.
- Think about how you might use humour to build a relationship or communicate something difficult.
Wishing you a week full of laughter and smiles!