Why are we able to survive a life filled with suffering and pain?
There is so much weeping in this dehumanised world, fully automated, mechanised, computerised, facing daily ordeals that should drive us to the madhouse, or to the grave.
Yet we are still hanging in there, enduring and embracing this grim and gloomy life. Our preservation through the hardest times is miraculous. What is this miracle, this elixir that makes life bearable?
Humour. Humour is the soul’s weapon, ready to rise and conquer this aggressive existence, thus safeguarding the human race. “Mirth is the best medicine for stress, bitterness and despair.”
Of course there is faith, love and hope but without humour life would be unbearable. It is essential for human survival. Humour gives you strength, say psychologists, a thought that never crossed our mind. It provides transcendence over adversities according to German philosopher and humanist Erich Fromm. He mentions Oscar Wilde’s stirring letter on supreme suffering, now known as “De Profundis”, written whilst in prison, as well as Marcel Proust, who still managed to save his soul in a Soviet Labour Camp.
A good deal of laughter must have been going on in those penitentiaries, for laughter provides transcendence.
Humour is complex and hard to define. Often confused with laughter, they are closely related but not synonymous. Psychologists and researchers have struggled to agree on a definition for a sense of humour. Instead, they came up with an endless list of what humour is, what triggers it and its healing factors in this crazy mixed up world.
It is only in the past few decades that scientists have concentrated on the study, construction, benefits, and theories about humour.
If we look back at the old Greek philosophers we find that humour was unkindly looked upon. In fact, from ancient Greece until the 20th century very little was written about humour.
Plato was a harsh critic of laughter, as he wrote in the Republic, displaying a lack of emotional control, and may provoke a violent reaction. His followers say they never saw him laugh. Poor Plato, what a boring life without laughter.
His objection to laughter is that it is malicious. It probably can be, if you laugh at someone’s pain. If your strict and arrogant boss trips on a banana peel and falls on his back the whole office members would laugh. Plato believes that is evil.
The very idea, though imaginary, provokes one’s laughter.
While Aristotle largely agreed with Plato, he considered wit a valuable part of any conversation. Smart. Wit and humour often go hand in hand, frequently, but not necessarily, leading to laughter.
Greek philosopher Democrites, often referred to as the laughing philosopher, not only had a mirthful disposition, but the ability to laugh at the stupidity of his fellow citizens as well as his own. Self-deprecating humour is a useful tool to ease tension, show modesty, and make friends.
Have we as a human race, always had a sense of humour? Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that from an evolutionary perspective, “humour would have had no universal value to early man living in the savannas of Africa.” He argues that, like intelligence, humour evolved as a survival tool. It strengthened the ability of the brain to detect mistaken reasoning.
So it did have a survival value, after all, as it enhanced the neural circuitry needed to survive.
Freud viewed humour as a release of the excessive sexual or aggressive tension.
Humour and laughter release the psychic tension related to inhibiting sexual or aggressive impulse.
Darwin was the first to observe that there were parallels between humans and animals in terms of humour. This certainly supports W E Jung’s theory which suggests that the fundamental evolutionary purpose of humour and laughter is a signal that facilitates cooperation, empathy, and mental skills.
Darwin conjectured: “Laughter seems primarily to be the expression of pure joy or happiness.”
Among primates a bare teeth display can signify a smile, while open mouth could mean laughter, according to primatologist Jane Goodall.
Primates also enjoy a chuckle. So how long has humour been around?
A quick calculation would mean that the last common ancestor of Homo Sapiens, chimpanzees, and orangutans dates back approximately 14 million years.
Such rudimentary elements of laughter are indicative that humour has a strong evolutionary foundation.
The study of infants have also cemented this theory. Smiling and laughter occur in the first year of life. Laughter could present an embryonic form of fully developed humour.
Infants and primates enjoy the same form of play according to Darwin. Smiling, tickling, chase games, peek-a-boos etc. We would to, if we were not looked upon as ridiculous.
Since adults find this inappropriate, we “tickle” each other’s minds instead.
Humour is no less playful. It performs a formidable task of helping us connect and bond, and may we add, survive.
When Queen Victoria announced “We are not amused” at someone’s imitation of her, she was greatly mistaken, and thus lost a big chance to be amused.
According to the Relief Theory in Humour, a sense of humour reduces fear, boredom and tension, especially a self-deprecating one. If there is nothing to laugh about, laugh at yourself, your gaffes, your awkwardness, your mistakes. We all have plenty of them.
Humour is the best way to control the saddest moments in our life.
“Humour is an affirmation of dignity, an affirmation of man’s superiority to all that befalls him.”
Romain Gary, (1914-1980)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.