Being neither an early bird nor a night owl but more of an exhausted pigeon, I have come to realize that no, we’re not all caught in a recurring fever dream that makes Kafka’s world sound reasonable, from which we will wake up maybe next week or the week after. No, this is our circus and those are our elephants.
I like to think that most of us, being fully awake and charging as best we can into each new day of hand-washing and waving at pixilated screen-friends, are finding the positive when and where we can.
Besides fighting off the urge to weep, though, what actually makes a person laugh? The element of surprise is a key component of humor. Jokes work because they’re incongruous and defy expectations. They translate one’s initial confusion into A-Ha! The complex neural pathways between set-up and punch line cause the release of feel-good neurotransmitters—dopamine, serotonin, and various endorphins, which lower your defenses and are the opposite of the negative, fight-or-flight responses that release adrenaline and raise stress levels.
People also love cartoons. At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States. Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink. However, while political cartoons may not take up much space in a paper, their impacts are huge, and they are still considered one of the most important parts of any newspaper. They immediately engage the reader and interpret the social and political scene and the public mood. They’re not just for comic relief, but create awareness in a specific context. In other words, they help readers see their world and how others see it.
So, take a fraught subject, approach it with humor, and instead of anger and adrenaline you can get endorphins and laughter. Obviously, not all fraught topics are appropriate for the humor treatment, and some laughter can be cruel and inappropriate, but the point is: the element of surprise is usually what makes something funny. Humor comes in many forms: irony, hyperbole, wordplay, misplaced reference, parody, escalating absurdity, and more.
When someone tells a funny story our brains go into an anticipatory state because the pleasure of laughing is so great. That’s why, when a great comic takes the stage, people are ready to laugh at their smallest gesture. The pleasure of laughing, or even just smiling as that bit of funny sparks in your brain, is a big reward. The pleasure of making someone else laugh is a part of all that because it’s so validating.
And laughter is the one contagious thing that’s good for you. It’s a social signal that predates the development of speech; it’s a sign of acceptance, peaceful intention, shared relief, or other positive emotions. Laughter boosts the immune system by reducing stress hormones. It oxygenates the brain and body because you’re gulping more air. It helps reduce risks of cardiovascular disease by improving blood flow and function, and it’s a real mood-lifter. A Harvard professor of psychiatry said, “It’s important to make a distinction between humor and laughter… Humor is an evoked response to storytelling and shifting expectations. Laughter is a social signal among humans. It’s like a punctuation mark.”
This post is a reminder that you’ve already survived everything you’ve ever been through. In this divisive era, the social and political climate is hard enough without amplifying it by reading every negative news story or spiraling into complaint or despair. If you’re suffering along with millions of others, why not make the radical step of taking your life back? It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped being a good citizen-participant, or stopped observing safety precautions. You can still stay informed, just not so obsessively at high personal cost. What it does mean is you’ve got better coping skills.
You can actually set an intent to laugh and smile more without forcing it. Go play with your pet, have socially-distanced coffee with friends, get in touch with your inner four year-old, do something you loved as a kid and haven’t done in years, find and read books or other materials that tickle your funnybone, watch funny YouTube videos, write down hilarious conversations you hear, follow funny people on social media, give a Zoom party and ask everyone to bring their favorite joke.
Limit your exposure to negative people, redundant negative news stories, and super-sad music. Get some exercise. Find the funny inside you. It’s all about restoring balance.
To restore my own balance, I’ve picked up my pens after a long hiatus and started cartooning again. It just feels good, and I often giggle while drawing them. This batch is themed, and others might be, too. Or not.