Hide and Seek

Understanding self-deception, self-sabotage, and more

Why Laughter is the Best Medicine

Laughter keeps us sane by revealing and reframing our deepest concerns.

Ego defences such as asceticism, altruism, sublimation, anticipation, and humor are considered to be ‘mature’. This is not only because they imply some degree of insight, but also because they can be adaptive or useful.

The use of humor, for example, presupposes that the person is able to see the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an anxiety-provoking emotion, event, or situation, to put it into its proper context, and to reveal it to others in the benign and gratifying form of a joke.

One way in which medical students and junior doctors cope with being bullied by surgeons is to tell jokes about them, and one joke that I remember well is this one. Mr Smith dies and goes to Heaven. At the Pearly Gates, St Peter stops him. ‘Everyone’s equal here,’ he says, ‘so I’m afraid you’re going to have to join the back of the queue.’ After about 30 or 40 minutes, a man wearing surgical scrubs rushes past and straight into Heaven, crying ‘Out of my way, out of my way!’ Mr Smith calls out to St Peter, ‘What was that?’ I thought you said that everyone’s equal here.’ ‘That,’ replies St Peter, ‘was God … but sometimes he thinks he’s a surgeon.’

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Freud himself noted that there is really ‘no such thing as a joke’: if human beings are the only animals to laugh, with some going so far as to turn laughter into a form of art and source of employment, then this is no doubt because they have by far the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies; the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death; and incongruity, absurdity, and meaninglessness. These are all deeply human concerns and challenges: just as no one has ever seen a laughing dog, so no one has ever heard about a laughing god.

All this is not to deny that humor cannot serve functions other than ego defence, for example, relaxation, pleasure, courting, bonding, problem solving, truth revealing—but merely to say that ego defence is one of the functions of humor and quite possibly its central and defining function. In other words, a joke that did not contain or reveal some defensive operation may well be amusing but could not be truly funny—an imitation and not the genuine article, a poor likeness and not the ideal form. In fact, it seems that the funniest jokes are those that both reveal and parody our ego defences.

So every time you hear someone laugh, I mean, really laugh, ask yourself, what actually is he or she laughing about? And then join in with redoubled laughter.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books. 

Watch his latest TED Talk, In Praise of Idleness.

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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