The Science and Spirituality of Good Humor

The Science and Spirituality of Good Humor December 20, 2019

I have the greatest housemates. Before my arrival I was nervous about housing, because I was assigned to an eleven-bedroom cottage for graduate students. Eleven bedrooms? How can eleven people get along, especially when we study different things and speak different languages and keep different hours? I expected it to devolve quickly.

I was spectacularly wrong. I’ve spent many years living with people I’m not related to, but this has been by far the most joyful and easiest arrangement. And why is that? There’s a foundation of mutual respect, on which is built good conversation, good cooking, and good humor.

Good humor. My housemates’ humor has been one of the most beautiful gifts of this term, an unexpected blessing that has made my adjustment to Cambridge much easier. Many times I have returned home from a stressful day, prepared to dwell on my anxieties and work, only to find myself in the kitchen crying from laughter. And these evenings help me begin again the next morning.

Good humor is an essential part of a good life. Science and theology, together, can show us how.

The science of humor

We can explain humor scientifically at any number of levels. If you think about it physiologically, the act of laughing is pretty odd. Fifteen muscles in your face contract. Your larynx half-closes, making you gasp for air. Sometimes your tear ducts are activated. And you produce short, vowel-type noises about five times per second.

Laughter is a social phenomenon. In the brain, there are regions in the prefrontal and auditory cortices responsible for detecting laughter in others — and these regions don’t light up when you hear fake laughter. This is likely how real laughter becomes contagious.

Above this brute physiology, laughter is a manifestation of mirth, the psychological response to humor. Over time, there have been many theories of why we experience mirth. Is it the release of tension, as Freud would have us believe? The mere violation of expectations, as Kant argued? Or perhaps the feeling of being superior to another’s misfortune or failure (think: America’s Funniest Home Videos)? But none of these theories appear to hold in every case of humor.

A new theory of humor

A persuasive theory put forward by cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley in his book Inside Jokes incorporates all these elements. In his explanation, the human person experiences mirth when her brain corrects a faulty assumption. To understand this explanation, we first have to remember that the brain is a predictive machine that constantly makes simplifying assumptions. These predictive guesses help us stay safe, allow us to understand the minds of others, and greatly reduce the time and energy needed spent making decisions. However, given that the brain makes these assumptions on the basis of incomplete and partial information about the world, the brain sometimes guesses wrongly.

Mirth, in this context, is the feeling of reward when a person recognizes and corrects her mistaken assumption. Take this joke: Two goldfish are in their tank, and one says to the other, “You man the guns, I’ll drive.” If you found this funny, it’s because your brain assumed “tank” meant “fish tank,” but corrected itself upon reading the punch line. If I had started with two goldfish are in a military tank, it wouldn’t have been funny. Evolutionarily, this pleasure at correcting false assumptions may have motivated our ancestors to think more, so as to correct cognitive errors that might have threatened their survival.

The dynamic of humor in the spiritual life

This theory doesn’t just explain why jokes with punchlines are funny. Rather, I think it explains our wonder and delight at the presence of God in our daily life. We may start the day assuming that nothing can shake our loneliness, that our work will be dreadfully tedious, that our relationships will be merely burdensome. And, if we were relying on our own strength, they would be! If we were on our own, we would discover these assumptions to be true.

But God breaks into our day. He surprises us, he subverts our predictions. He is present in the kindness of a stranger, he shows us something beautiful in our studies, he reminds us of his love through a friend. Our false assumptions of meaningless are shattered by His truth. Our darkness is redeemed in His light. CS Lewis describes this dynamic in his autobiography as being “surprised by joy.” In our daily life, God gets our attention and captures our heart by surprising us with joy.

What’s the opposite of being surprised by joy? Holding fasting to your assumptions. Closing yourself off from Christ’s initiative in your life. Preferring the comforting (but false) beliefs you already have to His challenging (but infinitely beautiful) truth.

In this way, we can understand good humor as an essential part of the spiritual life, especially during Advent. Because of the ways God has surprised us with joy in the past, we can look to the future with hope. We are open to His initiative, rather than holding on to our assumptions.

Learn to rejoice, dammit

All of us, regardless of our Christian beliefs, should strive for better humor. It’s indisputably good for you: it’s linked to a longer life span, greater intelligence, higher pain tolerance, and improved mental health. This research doesn’t actually establish causation, of course, just correlation. But there might be a causal mechanism for these benefits, because laughter changes your physiology. Over time, laughter reduces your blood pressure and your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and increases the function of the immune system.

But if we want to learn to rejoice, it has to be genuine. As I mentioned before, you can’t trick your brain into laughing. You have to seek out true sources of good humor if you want your brain and spirit to reap the rewards. If you want to laugh today, you can watch a comedy movie or a stand-up show. But if you want a lifetime of good humor, you need sustainable and deep sources of joy. We all need relationships and activities that remind of the newness and positivity of the world around us. We need reminders that reality is delightful precisely because it’s irreducible to our expectations and assumptions.

The paradox of Advent rejoicing

This is particularly important to Christians in this season of anticipation. This past Sunday we celebrated Gaudete Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when the Church reminds us it’s our Christian duty to rejoice always. This is a provocative command.

iStock Photo

How can we rejoice in a world torn by violent conflict and inequality, in communities torn by division and addiction, in lives torn by sin and weakness? Because, as St. Paul tells us, we are to rejoice in the Lord. We are to rejoice in the Lord, not in our own achievements or possessions or understanding or ability to fix this wounded world. We are to rejoice in the Lord, One whose presence breaks into our reality and shatters our assumptions. Our own understanding is not the measure of His truth, and our awareness not the measure of His presence. And so, even in the midst of sorrow and suffering, we can rejoice in Christ. As St. John Henry Newman tells us, “He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about.”

A prayer for good humor

Here’s a prayer to help you rejoice a little more. Shoutout to Nich for sending it my way, and to St. Thomas More for writing it.

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others


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