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Humor Is Part of a Good Life

Happiness and laughter go hand-in-hand.

Aristotle (384-324 BCE) claims that wit or good humor is a virtue and part of a good life. All virtues are means between the extremes of excess and deficiency, which means the right sort of humor hits a sweet spot between too much and too little. Aristotle calls those who go to the excess in raising laughs “vulgar buffoons.” These people go too far in getting people to laugh; they care more about getting the laughs than they do about how a joke might hurt, harm, or offend someone. Some buffoons try to ingratiate themselves with others or score points by using humor to take people down. There’s also a category of people who turn themselves into the butt of their own jokes. Their goal may be to ingratiate themselves to others or to make the jokes before someone else does. Buffoonery, when directed at oneself, does cause harm to a person, but that harm is often ignored or taken as the price one must pay to be accepted.

A person who is deficient in humor is boorish, according to Aristotle. A boor laughs very little, in part because he finds very little amusing. Furthermore, the boorish person may be impatient with people who laugh and see the humor in a situation. A boor most certainly will never laugh at himself. The boor emits more than a whiff of disapproval with a distinct undertone of superiority.

Both buffoonery and boorishness are unpleasant and even painful to others in related ways. The buffoon may take nothing (including himself) seriously enough, while the boor takes everything (including himself) too seriously. The buffoon and boor each take themselves out of much of the everyday social traffic of life.

What is the right sort of wit? Aristotle would say it is pleasant as opposed to buffoonery and boorishness. It is a gentle good humor not intended to harm or exclude. Right wit is not at another’s expense or one’s own expense. Wit connects people rather than severing or tearing them apart. Many people say they tease only the people they love or that gentle teasing is one way to show love. One must be careful with teasing because people’s tolerance for it varies tremendously. One needs to know someone fairly well before she teases him.

A person may also have the right wit about him or herself. Many of us tell on ourselves not because we are afraid someone will tell first (though that may be true in some cases), but rather because it is a way to make a connection to other people. Some of us can’t wait to tell on ourselves because we know others will appreciate our stories and that will only make them funnier.

There most certainly are different senses of humor and this can cause a variety of problems ranging from harmless to devastating. Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote, “What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humor? They do not properly react to each other. It's as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw to another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but for some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket." Not all people love wordplay and puns. Some love knock-knock jokes while others love seeing the absurd in a situation. Some people love sarcasm, which is a form of humor that easily becomes a weapon. The Greek root for “sarcasm,” is to tear or shred. Sarcasm most certainly builds connections within a group of people who delight in it while it can be utterly alienating and hurtful to those who do not. People who love sarcasm will toss the ball back and forth to each other. To the person who does not like sarcasm, it isn’t so much the other person puts the ball in his pocket but rather throws it at your head when you are not looking. This is not to say that sarcasm doesn’t have a place on the terrain of humor. It means a person must carefully wield it and not just because some people find it hurtful. Many people do not understand irony and sarcasm and may as a consequence take another literally. The claim, “I was only kidding and being sarcastic,” or “I was only joking,” may do little to redress a perceived or actual harm.

A person needs to be sensitive to the reasons why she is using wit and what she aims to accomplish in using it. The context is always crucial. A shared wit can defuse a situation or make people feel comfortable and welcomed. Humor can be used to call out a wrong or harm; comedians offer political commentary. People of the same persuasion find it humorous while others with a different orientation do not. The upshot is that humor may include and it may exclude; it may connect you to some and distance you from others.

Your sense of humor is a good barometer of how you see yourself and others. Aristotle might tell us to pay attention to what we find amusing and to whom it connects us. The company a person keeps says a lot (if not everything) about a person’s character. Aristotle might also counsel us to pay attention to when we lose our sense of humor, which may feel like losing a part of yourself. On the flip side, in regaining a sense of humor, you may get an old part of yourself back or make a new part of yourself. Wit is seriously important to our happiness.

References

Aristotle (1999). Nicomachean Ethics Second Edition, trans Terrence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (1984). Culture and Value, trans Peter Winch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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