The Value of Humour

WHAT DO YOU DEDUCE WATSON?Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on a Camping trip. After a good dinner and a bottle of wine, they retire for the night and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” “I see millions of stars, Holmes,” replies Watson. “And what do you deduce from that?” Watson ponders for a minute. “Well, astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets; astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo; horologically I deduce the time is approximately a quarter past three; meteorologically I suspect we will have a beautiful day tomorrow; theologically I can see a god that is all-powerful, and that we are small and insignificant in the universe.

Dr Watson says, “But what does it tell you, Holmes?” Holmes is silent for a minute, then says, “Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”

Well, I got a giggle from that – as did many others. This story was rated the second best joke from a large study carried out at the University of Hertfordshire. It appears that, to find things funny, we need to be able to shift perspective, see paradoxes, be surprised and delighted by the unexpected – usually the punchline. We are in a state of observing, which gives us space to see things differently than if we were experiencing the situation directly.

The emotion created by humour is called mirth, which can go from a mild amusement to side-splitting hilarity. Laughter or ‘Vitamin H’ is good for our bodies and minds, increasing our oxygen intake, producing hormones that relax muscles, strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure and easing digestion. Physiologically, there is an increase in dopamine activity in the pleasure or ‘reward’ centres of the brain making us feel good. Our pain thresholds also increase, and a relaxation response is triggered, causing our legs and arms to become relaxed. The ability to step back and observe, and to find humour is a positive indicator of emotional health.

Beneficial humour is called ‘self enhancing’. It is being able to laugh at ourselves (self-deprecating) and seeing the humour in our circumstance. However, there is also a form of humour which is aggressive or self-defeating, created at someone else’s expense e.g. sarcasm, schadenfreude (delight in others misfortune).

There is this elegant, helpful way of categorising some emotional states. If we are ‘high arousal’ and ‘low stress’ there is a pleasant excitement. If we are ‘high arousal’ and ‘high stress’ there is anxiety, and constant anxiety drains our emotional resources, and perspective.

Unfortunately, in our quake ravaged city and rebuild, the stressors remain constant for many. It is certainly no fun dealing with ongoing stress at multiple levels. For the many who are ravished by constant post quake demands, the ‘high arousal’- ‘high stress’ burnout state exists. Many of the clients I have seen talk of feeling detached, numbed, and struggle to step back and gain perspective. The fact that 66,000 Cantabrians are on antidepressant medication is an indicator of the need to buffer the level of distress.

There are many constructive ways of trying to reduce that stress. Finding things that are ‘do-able’ and manageable, maintaining simple routines, talking to friends and family, mild regular exercise, and giving ourselves permission to relax, treating ourselves in some basic way, and focusing on the issues we have some control over. But also keep in mind the benefits of humour. When we share humour it deepens our connection to others and allows us for a while to be the observer and provides a welcome, albeit temporary reprieve and release. Not easy for those struggling with trauma and constant stressors but when we are able to find humor, it is a real tonic. Hopefully, Watson did recognise the irony of his earnest endeavours to respond to Holmes’s question, and both could appreciate the bonding moment.


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