Laughter; the best medicine 


I’m more a man for observational humour than for jokes; but perhaps the joke has been on me…

British humour tends to the downbeat. Ironic, sarcastic and even cynical – there’s always the risk of us talking everything down. With my new optimistic élan, I’m doing my best to avoid all that. 

But if you can’t ‘bitch and moan’, where are the laughs at work? Our place is dead clever, but also dead earnest. I realised the other day I hadn’t laughed all week…

Thank goodness Philosophy Now spurred me into action with their humour edition!

Two strong explanations of humour are the ‘Superiority’ and the ‘Incongruity’ theories.

Anya Steinbeck explains the first:

“The so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson

Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own, formerly.” 

If Hobbes is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. So if Ted is a terrible golfer he can overcome the pain of this truth by making fun of Fred who is an even worse golfer. 

Plato believes this kind of humour to be damaging: “Taken generally the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” It counts as a vice because it is symptomatic of a lack of critical self-awareness as we ridicule others. 

I would suggest that the two most serious problems with hierarchical jokes are these: 

1) Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. 

2) Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” 

In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements. 

So what of the ‘Incongruity’ theory? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy gives us this:

“The first philosopher to use the word incongruous to analyze humor was James Beattie (1779). Our laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage.” The cause of humorous laughter is “two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.”

Beattie may be right but he’s not exactly got us rolling in the aisles with that description.

And it gets worse… Given his well deserved reputation for seriousness, perhaps not surprising that Kant is stronger on theory than gags…


“In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction).”

“Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.”

Kant illustrates with this story:

“An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, “What is there in this to astonish you so much?” he answered, “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.”

Following that cracker he serves up another:

“The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; ‘for’ (said he) ‘the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!’”

Whilst I wouldn’t recommend he gives up his day job, I’m with Kant. When it comes to making people laugh, I like incongruity. 

Superiority all too easily leads to the worst type of humour – arrogance, trashing others and talking people down. Now I know what I’m looking for, I realise I’ve seen plenty of ‘superiority’ humour about. It’s not pretty. 

Keep it incongruous I say. As my boy did with his little joke in the car this morning; it made me laugh out loud:

“What did one rebel sausage say to the other?”

“May the fork be in you!”


Adults and Children

All adults are big kids sometimes, but often the wrong kind. We keep the petty, squabbling, thin-skinnedness of children but often lose the curiosity, spontaneity and sense of fun.

It’s a bit hackneyed but I still have a lot of time for Transactional Analysis. The simple insight that a lot of our interactions are marred by deliberately or carelessly behaving like a domineering ‘parent’, lecturing or judging an errant ‘child’, describes a lot of what happens at work.

I was congratulated this week for doing an hour-long ‘all staff’ talk without once descending into parent-child. Apparently I was ‘adult to adult’ throughout. But the funny thing is, I wasn’t conscious of it. It was simply a case of being open, honest, respectful and genuinely answering the questions people asked. I used to be quick, slick and evasive. Now I’m slower and straighter – a good thing I think.

But I’ve also learnt that there’s still a space for the ‘free child’ at work. That’s when someone comes over all reproving or domineering and you prick their ‘parental bubble’ with a nifty joke at their expense. It’s risky, but done right it doesn’t half work. A bit of ‘free child’ brings some fun too, some laughter, a feeling things are ok and makes for a happier day. As Aristotle would advise it’s all about finding the golden mean between ‘boor’ and ‘buffoon’. He generally gets these things about right.

To finish, a happy chapter on our local community. I write on return from a public meeting, where we overcame some spirited and sustained resistance to more play equipment, in our once bleak – but now thriving – community park. People overlooking feared noise and teenagers and graffiti. Not unreasonable, but there’s a wider community to serve.

I said a few words in favour, but the Chair – a volunteer of course as all the best people are – managed the meeting with great dignity and some skill. I wrote to him just now to say:

You managed that really really well. Inviting everyone to speak – individually – but not allowing ding dongs was the genius of your chairmanship. It kept it civil, kept us from polarising and allowed people to be heard without hijacking. In the end defeat was calm and dignified not angry and litigious.

His skill was helping us to stay adult, as we discussed children. Being the best of both is what I’m working on.


As I wrote the other week, I now know the cognitive cost of self-control is ‘ego depletion’. In Wired’s less technical terms, acts of self-control ‘piss the ego off’ and attract us to angry thoughts, words and deeds.

‘Ego depletion’ has sometimes caused me to undo my good works with an ‘unnecessary’ withering remark or ‘unduly’ bleak assessment. But whilst these may seem ‘unnecessary’ or ‘undue’ in the eyes of others – and damaging certainly – experience, and now evidence, show a ‘depleted ego’ demands its redress. Is there a better way? This week, I discovered, that laughter works just as well as scything remarks in topping up the cognitive cost of self-control.

I was in an absolutely packed three day management meeting in Madrid. Travel, time differences, lots of people, lots of subjects, lots of personalities and inevitably a certain amount of self-control required to navigate with aplomb. Surely the perfect tee up for one of my incongruous blasts. But this week I didn’t do it.

Of course I was tempted. Tired, hot, periodically irritated and regularly in receipt of the ‘gift’ of feedback, a good put down or an acerbic ‘reality check’ was sorely tempting for a sore ego. But I didn’t do it. Instead, I applied what I have learned in recent months and years: watch my energy, leave other people’s stuff alone if it doesn’t really concern me, avoid tangling unnecessarily. Best of all though, I stumbled upon some humour.

Humour in big meetings is a delicate balance. People are often more ready to laugh ‘at’ you than ‘with’ you. As Aristotle rightly points out there is a fine line between ‘boor’ and ‘buffoon’. But a winning smile and an amusing turn of phrase was sometimes all it took to lift the mood when the whole room was just as ‘ego depleted’ as I was.

The net result? I left with the job done – feeling tired, but cheerful – and with smiling goodbyes all round. Much better than angry with myself, diffident and apologetic for unnecessary barbs.

In sum, a moment of laughter tops up a depleted ego far more effectively than a verbal headbut – however tempting…

Truisms iii) Dry stonewalling

Here are seven of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms I increasingly agree with:

Fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon

Expressing anger is necessary

Emotional responses are as valuable as intellectual responses

Giving free rein to your emotions is an honest way to live

Hiding your emotions is despicable

Humor is a release

Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run

For much of the last decade ‘stonewalling’ was a personal favourite of mine on the home and work front. I now see it was a form of emotional distancing I used to manage my reaction to people and situations. 

At one level it worked, but it drained my energy and at times frustrated people. Sometimes people would get cross with me. This was a quick route to me completely shutting down and quietly brooding, or more rarely reacting with excessively sharp-tongued vitriol. 

I’m learning that staying in touch with your feelings – although it feels risky sometimes – is important. Following my feelings can make me feel a bit ‘unbounded’, impulsive, eclectic, even a bit inappropriate sometimes. But often ‘in the moment’ I now do what needs doing or say what needs saying. And I have more laughs, with people I don’t know, as well as those I do. 

Constantly controlling my emotions was tiring, it drained my batteries and potentially prepared me to be hurt or hurtful. Better to be in tune and ready to speak up and speak out, flash a smile or crack up laughing. Life’s too short not to feel it.