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Last year, COVID-19 happened, and then America collectively lost its sense of humor. 

The fact that we sort of lost Saturday Night Live probably had a lot to do with it, along with the absence of live music. As a result of this terrible tragedy, we focused on our troubles and crisis and economy, we focused on social justice issues and political divides, and we got really good at figuring out who should be blamed and who we should hate harder. We even made lists of words to censor and long-dead historical figures to overthrow and defame. We canceled children’s books and Disney characters, we canceled school, and in short, I would surmise, we lost our composure. 

In any case, as we reopen, I sure hope that special part of the brain that makes random connections to see the absurdity of life reopens with it, because ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that laughter is the only way to preserve sanity in an otherwise quite insane world that we really don’t understand. The ability to have a sense of humor is not only fun and enjoyable, but it is also a sign of intelligence. It is a major coping mechanism in times of stress, and it is one of the most powerful ways our bodies heal and restore. Did you know that even mice have a sense of humor? Yes, mice, during play, tickle each other and emit ultrasonic sounds that reduce stress hormones and can only be construed as mouse laughter. Yes, intelligent living creatures have a good laugh once in a while, and if we lose this ability, this might just be the first step toward collective human devolution. And this is not a laughing matter, as I think we are already quite low on the totem pole. 

Humor is an ability to see conflicting or impossible scenarios happening simultaneously. This means when we engage in humor, we are activating parts of the brain that connect random variables with one another, resulting in improbable outcomes. This, essentially, is an act of mental play, so to speak, and it requires bilateral activation of both hemispheres of the brain, which basically means using more of your brain than you normally do. 

Humor helps us understand social norms and cultural expectations by revealing misalignments and contradictions in a safe and playful context. Humor is extremely helpful in creating psychological conversions that allow us to process painful or difficult feelings. For example, during grief we remember silly parts of the person we lost or laugh at a situation that would have been unthinkable in their presence. Humor also informs us of our current collective condition creating universality between us, thus eliminating feelings of loneliness and isolation. At the same time, humor can create a separation between us and the situation at hand, which in turn, helps us cope with difficult circumstances.

In short, without humor we become psychologically brittle, less resilient, and more susceptible to depression, PTSD, anxiety, and despair. We can become so overwrought with feelings of personal tragedy, only to be reminded that we are minuscule ants floating on a giant rock in an endless abyss, headed toward a black hole where the space-time continuum is swallowed into the shroud of eternal mystery, and one can’t help but chuckle at the triviality of our existence in the grand scheme of things. 

We laugh at stereotypes, we laugh at absurdity, we laugh at accents, we even laugh at tragedy, mostly because it helps us process our own uncomfortable feelings. It helps us understand ourselves, and most importantly, it helps us survive. Of course, this can sometimes turn malicious under abnormal circumstances. Children in schoolyards, for example, are an interesting focus group for the study of malicious humor under social stress for survival. But this is a separate topic altogether. 

For the purposes of this column, however, the point is: Humor and laughter help us maintain sanity. Laughter regulates our hormones, improves our immune system, reduces our stress hormones, produces pleasure chemicals, activates important reward centers in the brain, engages creative thinking, orients us socially and culturally, tones muscle, and helps us lose weight (10 minutes of laughter can burn up to 40 calories). It restores our nervous system and increases a feeling of connectedness. 

So, for the love of God, laugh and be merry! In the words of the beloved John Cleese, “Laughter is a force of democracy.” spt

Sophie Schoenfeld, MFT

Sophie Schoenfeld, MFT is a local marriage and family therapist. For more info, visit sophiemft.com.

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