Monday, 17 August 2009

Fear of Funny: What Scares Us About Humor

Babies laugh, long before they can speak. Children laugh 300 times a day. But as we get old, as we age, something happens. We become more somber, more serious. We let go of the joy and laugh less -- remarkably less. The average adult laughs 15 times a day -- a 95% reduction from childhood's more carefree

Where does the laughter go? Why do we stop enjoying ourselves? Is life not funny anymore, once we hit thirty? Some people think it's because adult life is too full of stress and problems to laugh: what's funny, after all, about work and family and taking care of the car and the dog and the house? But humor can help with all of that. Experts regard humor as one of the most effective forms of stress relief available. So why aren't we laughing?

One of the reasons we don't do things -- any thing -- is that we're afraid. We're afraid of being bitten, so we don't pet the dog. We're afraid of being rejected, so we don't ask the pretty girl or handsome guy out. We're afraid of getting audited, so we don't underreport our income every April 15. Every action has a potentially negative consequence, and it's fear of those consequences that keep us from acting.

What are we afraid of when we don't laugh? Here are the top three fears, things that make people hold in the laughs -- even when they want to.

Laugh, and The Whole World...Wait, They're Not Laughing! While we often picture people laughing in groups, and treasure the times we laugh with our friends as some of life's best times, no one wants to be the only person chuckling. This leads to hesitancy, an overall reluctance to laugh. If you wait for someone else to laugh first, you eliminate any risk -- but if no one laughs, you're forced to keep your joy inside. And remember: just as you're afraid to laugh first, so is everyone else. This leads to very joyless days at work.

This is a grown up job, act like a grown up! College days and kidding around at the sandwich shop are far behind you: now you've got a grown up career, with grown up responsibilities. This requires being serious at all times -- which is too bad, since laughter can have positive effects on the workplace: lifting morale, building teams, increasing efficiency.

Concern over being seen as 'mean' stops many people, who are confused about the difference between therapeutic, appropriate humor, and the taunting, teasing, sarcasm that we first encountered in the school yard. Obviously, we should not be using humor to inflict pain; there is plenty to laugh at in this universe without targeting other people. Make yourself aware of the difference, and diligently practice the former. You 'll find you won't have to worry about the latter -- it will feel 'wrong' when you use mean spirited, negative jokes.

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