Fractured funny bone

The capacity to laugh at oneself, especially when a person pokes fun at you, signals that one is emotionally secure and comfortable in one’s skin.

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:56 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2012 05:33 pm IST

In 1905, the prolific and ingenious Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, published one more of the extraordinary treatises that he seemed to churn out with unnerving regularity (that are read, analysed and marvelled at by students of psychology and psychoanalysis even today). Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious met with mixed responses ranging from ‘Why can’t he leave us to just enjoy a good laugh?’ to ‘What extraordinary insights the man has’.

Although many critics have not been overly impressed with this particular book and have implied that it was one of his shallower works, and much of what he said in it has not necessarily stood the test of time, I refer to it today because I recently re-read it to understand why we, as a nation, and in particular our leaders, have collectively fractured our funny bone. There wasn’t much light that Freud could throw on this particular question, but during this reading of the book I was able to crack a smile or two which I had not been able to do when I first read it as a wet-behind-the-ears student.

Dourer and sourer

A couple of things that Freud reiterated about jokes still hold true. One is that the principal motive for joking is the intrinsic human need to experience the pleasure it produces and the other is that the pleasure produced by humour is infectious. And when we recall the good times we have had, the jokes we’ve laughed at and the ones we cracked that fell flat, only a very dour disposition could suppress a nostalgic chuckle.

However in the PC Age that we now seem to live in (I refer neither to our Finance Minister nor the personal computer, but to Political Correctness), we seem to have become dourer and sourer when it comes to enjoying a good laugh, unless one’s a member of a Laughing Club that meets every morning and laughs uproariously at nothing in particular, just to get oneself into a cheerful mood until the neighbours complain.

There are, of course, different kinds of jokes, and several classifications of jokes compiled by serious students of the subject do exist in literature (many of them deserving of at least Ig Nobel nominations), but I will desist from regaling you with descriptions of these.

However, all jokes, whether spoken, written or drawn, smutty or clean, earthy or ethereal, silly or clever, have three major elements: transgression of boundaries of social propriety, a high degree of exaggeration, and topicality. It is the individual’s tolerance of boundary transgressions and the motive of the jokester – pleasure or malice - that will determine whether the funny bone is tickled or the upper lip is curled.

From the foregoing it may have become evident that PC and humour in our country are very unlikely bedfellows, for true political correctness involves not laughing at anything that could cause offence to any individual or marginalised group, which means pretty much the whole country. Despite this, we laugh.

Sometimes, we do so to relieve the pressures of our day-to-day life, or to escape from difficult situations, or because we find something funny despite ourselves, or because someone else says things we would love to say but are afraid to. Some of us laugh easier than others. Some of us are seen as being funnier than others. And we may even end up believing that we have a great sense of humour.

But in truth, not many of us do for, if we are honest enough to admit it, we’re likely to fail the acid test to determine whether or not we have a sense of humour: the capacity to laugh at ourselves especially when someone pokes fun at us. It doesn’t take us long to take umbrage at something being said, even if light-heartedly, about us or something that we think of as ours.

Healing effect

The problem is that we often take ourselves and our beliefs too seriously. As a result our boundaries are a little too tight and even the mildest of transgressions (which is an essential part of humour) is perceived as a violation. But when the motive is only to cause and experience pleasure, humour can be physiologically very desirable.

Dozens of muscles are exercised when one laughs heartily. Endorphins get activated in the brain promoting a sense of joy and well-being. Also, many scientific studies have pointed to the healing effect of laughing. And when one is able to laugh at oneself, there is an added psychological benefit too. For this signals to others and one’s own ‘self’ that one is emotionally secure and comfortable under one’s skin.

I do agree that, sometimes, attempts at humour can be mean, even malicious. However, if we join in the laughter because we genuinely have the capacity to laugh at ourselves, the malafide intent of the jokester gets immediately negated, for such people want to hurt you, not entertain you.

This reduces the likelihood of repetition, for the more they do it, the more they lose credibility with their audience, which is why good-humoured people rarely remain the butt of malicious humour. But, when our funny bone gets fractured, life can become hell for everyone around us, for humourlessness is as infectious as a good laugh.

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