Thursday, July 19, 2007

Learned Humor Styles

Although Dr. Kataria, the creator of laughter Yoga and others like him have shown that the act of laughter itself is therapeutic, it is also useful to explore the different kinds of humor styles and how these styles affect our interactions with others.

Through my work in the schools I learned that, although kids love to laugh, there can also an element of this laughter that is at the expense of smaller and weaker children. This idea has certainly been around long before I myself was getting wedgies from other children, and bullying is in fact one of the most destructive forces in the educational system.

At the root of bullying may be the intense need to belong, which psychologists like Alfred Adler thought was one of our most primal and powerful instincts. Kids quickly learn that the class clowns receive more attention than other children, and this sends a powerful and conflicting message. Somewhere in our early socialization we find that, although we are trained to respect and listen to the teacher, there is one of them who doesn't look and talk much like we do, and 30 people about our size whose opinions of us quickly becomes much more powerful than the lone teacher.

So we quickly learn to use laughter to become closer to the rest of these people we suddenly find ourselves together with. Often this laughter gets directed at the kids that are the most different, and laughter becomes a powerful tool of conformity that may be used to distance ourselves from those that don't belong.

So how do we teach healthy laughter then becomes the question. It has been my observation that laughter becomes a kind of wisdom when we learn to make a joke at our expense as part of a larger pattern of laughing at the absurdity of the human condition. Pretty heady stuff to teach a second grader grader, but within this idea there lies a powerful understanding of the world. Communal laughter implies thoughtful realization, that I like you, have things happen that are out of my control. Laughter involves choosing to view these things with a kind of passive volition that implies an understanding of how chaotic this shared voyage we are on can really be, and when we come to realize this we have turned a significant corner in our own growth and maturity.

The idea of humor styles has also been written about by Louise Dobson (2006) who contributed a wonderful piece to Psychology Today on this very subject. Dobson begins by talking about how humor was initially thought to be an indication of aggression. This idea fits well with the kind of humor that is often used in bullying, and this kind of humor intersects when people have found a way to combine their anger and their need to belong in a way that uses humor to build themselves up while tearing others down. Dobson talks about how someone like Ann Coulter represents someone who often uses this kind of humor, and hearing her mock presidential candidate John Edward's deceased son, this certainly seems to be the case. People like herself and Rush Limbaugh have built their entire reputations from mocking and taunting others, and one can make a guess that these behaviors may be a compensation for maladaptive behaviors regarding humor they learned early on in life.

Another category Dobson refers to as "self-hating" humor, and she lists Chris Farley and John Belushi, as examples of this kind of humor, a subject I wrote about at length in my book The Tragic Clowns
This kind of humor is also closely related to patterns developed in childhood, as kids who are picked on learn to make fun of themselves before others have a chance to. Many of the world's great comedians in fact honed their comedy skills through this socialization pattern, as they became so adroit and entertaining others through mocking themselves that they eventually became famous for it. Farley was the classic example of this, and this pattern eventually permeated every other phase of his life to the point where he completely self-destructed.

The next category Dobson refers to as "Bonding Humor" and this is the kind of healthy humor I earlier referred to as "communal" which implies a shared understanding of the comedy of our shared humanity. This kind of humor is also at the root of the power of the laughter clubs, as they provide a place to leave worries at the door and participate in a moment of unconditional, shared joy with their fellow human beings. So how do we "teach" this kind of humor, and is this lesson worthwhile? I believe and contend that communal laughter is something people deeply desire to be a part of from the very beginning of life. Returning to the idea of the power of "belonging," perhaps if we emphasized the power of laughter that promotes belonging before the powers of socialization preverts the use of humor in our schools, we could prevent bullying before it has a chance to begin. That was my experience working with kids, and seeing this transformation was truly inspiring. Despite abuse, neglect, and isolation, I found that children ultimately craved the chance to laugh along with others in the same situation. When they reached this place the bullying disappeared, and this humor lesson taught me at least as much as I taught the children.