Want to be happier?
Try improving your sense of humor. As a comedian I’m sometimes asked about how a sense of humor can be practiced.
Our happiness can be dramatically increased when we’re willing to laugh at ourselves and our human condition. That’s common knowledge. What isn’t so common is an understanding of humor’s anatomy. What makes something funny?
Comedy and mindfulness.
But if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Many of the best comedians practice something called “observational humor.” Observational humor is defined as pointing out the things we’ve already noticed, but don’t tend to talk about or admit.
When a comedian brings these observations into view, our enjoyment often takes the form of nervous laughter and relief as we realize that our private concerns are actually shared human experiences. Comedy is a form of social revelation.
Mindfulness shares much the same aim: to bring into the foreground of our awareness all the background impressions that we often distract ourselves from, ignore, or deny. The aim of mindfulness is personal revelation.
Comedians make us happier. It’s what we pay them for. Mindfulness is supposed to lead to happiness too, yet if our observation of ourselves is accompanied by self-judgment instead of a sense of humor, it can backfire. Then we just become uncomfortably self-conscious instead of freely self aware.
In short, professional comedians help us avoid taking our self observations too seriously. They help us to bypass the judgment trap. And if we want to know how to improve sense of humor we can get some clues from the pros.
Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for the New Yorker, talks about how humor helps us.
Humor is the antidote to overthinking. It’s a way of saying that life is paradoxical. Humor contains contradictions; it does not resolve them but revels in them. It says that the right way to exist among the contradictions, paradoxes, and absurdities of life is to cope with them through laughter.”
“The antidote to overthinking.” That’s what spiritual advisors have been telling us mindfulness practice is all about. Mr. Mankoff reminds us that humor has the power to lead us toward the same happiness that mindfulness claims to deliver.
So how can we revel in the comedy of our contradictions? One answer is to follow the lead of the comedians by telling stories about our lives.
Often, when we’ve been foolish or silly we keep it to ourselves. Anticipating, perhaps, the judgment we might receive from others. Most of the time, however, telling stories about our humanness shows our vulnerability and authenticity. Those characteristics are much more likely to produce acceptance and connection than judgment. And when others witness our folly with acceptance, it becomes a lot easier for us to accept ourselves.
If we look around at our immediate circumstances and behaviors, we usually don’t have to look too far to find a little comedy.
For example, my six-year-old son has been coming into my home office to show me the progress of his latest Lego creation as I’ve been trying to write this article.
I was patient for a while, and then started getting frustrated and annoyed by his repeated visits. I explained to him that this was the last time for a while that I could be interrupted because I was busy with work. He left, understanding my need for focus, but also a little crestfallen.
I went back to my work and then it occurred to me that I had just turned away a pure demonstration of being in the moment so I could focus on my serious article about mindfulness.
A cartoon I recently saw shows two women standing together at the end of their yoga class. One says to the other, “I want to live in the moment. Just not this moment. Some other moment. Like a moment on the beach.”
If I were to put my own situation into cartoon form, it might look something like this.
If you want to take the seriousness out of mindfulness practice and be happier in the process, here’s my two-step program for how to improve sense of humor.
How to Improve Your Sense of Humor
- Observe the absurd within.
- Dare to share it out loud.
Comedy and mindfulness are both instances of reveling, and they each do it by introducing acceptance into a space of judgment. As you learn to lighten up on yourself you might find you really enjoy making people laugh at our shared human nature.
Don’t get too good at it, though. We comedians need the business.
(If you’d like to take a look at how I bring mindfulness and humor together at the corporate events I present for, you can watch my video below.)